CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Janet Fitch

A Conversation with Janet Fitch

By Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

Janet Fitch is the author of  White Oleander, Paint It Black, The Revolution of Marina M., and Chimes of a Lost Cathedral.  Photo: Cat Gwynn

Janet Fitch is the author of White Oleander, Paint It Black, The Revolution of Marina M., and Chimes of a Lost Cathedral. Photo: Cat Gwynn

I first became aware of novelist Janet Fitch when White Oleander, an Oprah Book Club selection made into a feature film, was first published. I loved the novel and had her on my radio show. I remember being entranced with her alacrity with metaphor and simile and asked her, as we sat in my car in a Starbucks parking lot near the University of California, Irvine Campus where my show broadcasts, how she came up with such original similes and metaphors. 

“Will you stare at a dripping faucet for hours until it becomes something else?” I asked her and she said, “Yes, yes I will.”

Next came Paint It Black, also made into a movie, and more recently The Revolution of Marina M. Her latest novel, Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, pubs on July 2, 2019 and completes the story of the poet Marina Makarova and her journey through the Russian Revolution. 

Fitch’s short stories have appeared in anthologies and journals such as Los Angeles Noir, Black Clock, Room of One's Own, and Black Warrior Review. She teaches creative writing at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.


Barbara DeMarco-Barrett: When you started out—well, let’s say when you published White Oleander and then Paint It Black, did you ever think there was a historical novel in your future?  

Janet Fitch: No, but I do love history. I majored in history. It shouldn’t have surprised me that I would end up writing something historical. The Library of Congress even called Paint It Black—set in 1980 punk rock L.A.—an historical novel. 

  

BDB: What is different about writing these last two novels set in Russia from the first two novels set in Los Angeles? 

JF: I always considered myself an L.A. writer. My first novels were set here, all my short stories, and The Revolution of Marina M. began as a Los Angeles novel. My character Marina Makarova, an exile following the Russian Revolution, was a hotel maid in a short story called “Room 721,” published in Black Clock. But when I tried expanding that story, her backstory in Russia proved more compelling that her present story in the twenties. And though I considered myself an L.A. writer, I am a writer first and foremost—and I went to where the story was, which was the Russian Revolution. 

The difference, of course, is the amount of research, which was deep and wide, and specifically, deciding what elements of all the historical events of the period would play a part in the book. Also, I had to learn about Marina’s world and what she thought of it. Little but important things, like how much of an adult she would have been perceived as being at age 17, what she would have read, what she would have been passionate about. I had to learn how things worked back then, from the telephones to a boat motor to a hand-knitting machine—which, like most writers, I adore, and have to be very careful not to become lost in. 

I knew the worlds I was writing about in my first two novels. I knew some of the history of the Revolution, though I had to learn so much more than I knew. I had been a student in Leningrad during the Soviet era, but had to go back as my character, specifically focused on immediate pre-revolutionary Petersburg/Petrograd and the Revolutionary era, as well as do interviews with knowledgeable Petersburgers at a variety of institutions who could provide answers I could not find in any books. All this takes a tremendous amount of time. The two books, The Revolution of Marina M. and now Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, have taken twelve years—that’s quite a chunk of one’s life.

But I was passionate about doing it. I’m crazy about Russia—have been since I was a kid. I picked Petersburg because it’s not large. It was the cradle of the Revolution. I had lived there, I could learn it, its neighborhoods and their feel. I love how different it feels to most of Russia—it’s an anomaly, a sea-going Russia in a vast landlocked empire. Place, to me, is exceptionally important. I’m not going to write a book like this sitting next to my washing machine and watching a few YouTube videos. I read hundreds of books—there’s a bibliography of the best of them on my website—and had a research fellowship there, through the Likhachev Foundation. I walked its streets. I dreamed those dreams. 

I love Russian poetry, and my character is a poet—and that revolutionary age, starting, say, in 1900 and ending around the end of Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, the end of the revolution in 1921, was the great Silver Age of Russian Poetry. So many of these poets appear in Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, Marina’s heroes: Akhmatova and Mayakovsky, Mandelstam and Gumilev and Blok... It was so much fun to write them as living characters, how they would interact with her and with each other.

 

BDB: How did you choose the POV for Chimes of a Lost Cathedral?

JF: Marina’s point of view was always there—though the voice, the who, changes and grows from The Revolution of Marina M. to Chimes of a Lost Cathedral. The first book is Marina's coming of age, it has a certain tone, a romantic idealist’s POV whose ideals have not yet been put to the test. The second book is the voice of a young woman who has learned many hard truths things about life, who has tested and been tested, and now, what she does with the knowledge. The Revolution of Marina M. begins from the point of view of Marina at 32, in California, in 1932, then shifts into the voice of the 16-year-old, the 17-year-old. Chimes of a Lost Cathedral begins with her at 19, and the edges have worn off her romanticism, her idealism has been beaten up a fair amount—it's a richer, darker voice, a dramatic soprano, say, to her former lyric soprano.

 

BDB: Will there be a Part 3, or do you feel Russia and Marina M. are finished (for now)? 

JF: No spoilers, but Chimes of a Lost Cathedral brings the Russian years of Marina’s life to a close. I could see returning to that Twenties novel, but not yet—right now I want to write about our own times, the problems of living in this historical period. 

 

BDB: Talk about teaching yourself to write—in part by dissecting your favorite novel(s). 

JF: All writers teach themselves to write. Even if they're in an academic program, they teach themselves. I’ve taught in graduate writing programs long enough to see the ones who are going to be writers—they don’t expect to have roses shower down on them from on high, they actively grab the goods as they glint by. Most writers, like myself, don’t have the good fortune to attend an MFA program. They’re on their own, looking for treasure. That was me. But we’re not really on our own—because great writers have been there before us. Their work itself is a distillation of what they know about writing. But we have to then analyze what they’re doing, pull it it apart, to understand what they have done—because they’re not rising from their graves or visiting us from their mountain hideaways or writing studios and saying, See how I used that repetition of the image of the Ferris Wheel to imply both the circularity of the protagonist’s life and the hopelessness of his seeking for a way out? One has to become one’s own teacher. 

To become a writer, or an artist of any kind, the first thing that's necessary is to increase the intensity of your study. You have to become a devotee. It’s the process of hardening the steel in an intense fire. You have to burn for it. And part of that intensity is to not just read—constantly—but to actively attack your reading, to powerfully interact with the book. That means reading it, and then going back and pulling it apart, noting how they handle flashback, how they do their dialogue scenes, how they work little images into powerful recurring motifs, where they raise curiosity by telling you a little less that you want to know. Write all over the books you engage with. Lay out their structure. Then write and see if you can emulate the things you admire. 

There is this stupid freakiness about influence that some writers worry about. That is so ridiculous. “The Agony of Influence.” Just make sure you’re being influenced by the best. As you write your imitative stuff, certain aspects of that writer’s style or concerns will stick to you, and other aspects will drop away, or be combined with other influences, and what you will end up with will be a voice and a style, a unique combination of the people you admire and your own native voice. As long as you’re reaching out for the best—and how can you get this white-hot devotional intensity from mediocre work? There just isn’t that much to mine. You can use their work to sharpen your own understanding of the craft. The practice of tearing apart great works to see how they were constructed only increases your admiration for the art form, and that fire in your heart, in your soul, to learn, to try harder, to increase your ambition towards greatness, is what I hope is in the soul of every writer.

 

BDB: I love Writing Wednesdays, which you started more than a year ago on your author Facebook page. You’ve been pretty dedicated to it. It’s obvious what your viewers get out of it, but what do you get out of doing these videos and sharing knowledge?

JF: I love to teach and I’m not teaching anywhere at the moment. So I figured, life is short and I don’t want to die with this information. What if I get hit by a bus? Not everything has to be monetized. I enjoy doing it—it’s Facebook Live, which is just about the most informal way of making information public. I just set up the phone on my desk, pick a topic, and start talking. I like it because people can react as I’m doing it. It’s more of a conversation. I like how spontaneous it is. When I teach a course at a university, I have to be so structured. This is like a good conversation. It surprises me, as well as the listener. Things come up that wouldn’t have, if I’d planned it all out—that’s why I like the format better than a more professional video.

As far as being dedicated, that’s how I live my life. I’m hard to get started but once I get started, it’s not hard to keep it going. 

I am thinking of compiling the Writing Wednesdays into a book—but how to convey the information and keep the spontaneous tone? I could organize it into a far more textbook-y style, very usable but ugh. I would like to do it in some form, for the same reason I do the videos: like many people, I was not able to attend a graduate writing program, so I want to get that information out there that would have helped me as a young writer. I guess that’s what I’m doing it for. To save that young writer some of the pointless struggle and confusion and frustration.


Janet Fitch is an American author and teacher of fiction writing. She is the author of White OleanderPaint It Black, and The Revolution of Marina M. Additionally, she has written a young adult novel, Kicks, short stories, essays, articles, and reviews, contributed to anthologies and teaches at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She taught creative writing for 14 years in the USC Master of Professional Writing program, as well as VCFA’s Writing and Publishing program, A Room of Her Own (AROHO), the UCLA Writer’s Program, and Pomona College. She lectures frequently on fiction writing.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett is a journalist, essayist, and short story writer living in Southern California. She hosts Writers on Writing, KUCI-FM, which airs live on Wednesday mornings at 9 a.m. PT and podcasts on iTunes. More at www.penonfire.com

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Deirdre McNamer

A Conversation with Deirdre McNamer

by Catalina Baker

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Author and fiction professor Deirdre McNamer speaks exclusively in piercing writerly insights. And a few months ago, I had the distinct pleasure of basking in her incisive reflections. We sat by her fire, drinking tea and eating cookies, and I listened to her meditate on craft, process, and product. She said we must mine our lives for bits of character, render history as experience, and imagine writing as a form of travel and transformation. And ultimately, she explained, it’s about finding what haunts you. Find what haunts you, and embrace it.


Catalina Baker: Dee, thank you so much for speaking with me. 

Deirdre McNamer: Of course.


CB: So, when I was brainstorming what I wanted to ask you, I immediately thought about character. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it actually means to “develop a character,” and recently, you used a word to describe a character’s motivations that really resonated. You called them a character’s “agenda.” And what I found interesting about that word was the fact that an “agenda” suggests both long-term, game-changing actions and short-term, everyday tasks. I was wondering: when you sit down to write a story, how do you think about the characters’ agendas?

DM: That’s interesting. I think I start with an image or a place, but I combine it with a situation. And those lead to an agenda. For example, an image I’ve been working with recently is a woman who has returned to the little town where she grew up and decides to, essentially, occupy her empty childhood house. And she can do it because it’s been on the market forever and nobody’s checking on it. And so I thought, that’s just an interesting situation. So then, as I proceed, I describe the house as she sees it now, and some memories begin folding in. But why she’s doing all this—as you say, the sort of macro agenda—might start to take shape as I write. It’s not just, is she going to stay overnight here? It’s her larger motivation, and that usually takes longer to figure out. But I think it always has to be in the corner of your eye. Or at least provisionally, you should be thinking: Why would someone do this? Is she coming off some sort of trouble somewhere, some frustration, or a feeling that her memory is going? It could cover so many things, why someone would do something like this. So I guess the answer is, I begin with an image I’m trying to get down. What’s the day like while she’s walking around town? I imagine she sees her old house and tries the back door. There’s a realtor’s sign on it. I really try to fill in that image, to put the character there. And then I accelerate it a little bit: the back door easily opens, and so she goes in. And as I’m drawing the picture, I’m thinking, what’s motivating her? Some of this agenda might stem from a realization that you couldn’t fully have until you sat down to write a certain kind of story. And it could go nowhere. But I like to think about this sort of thing for a while. I like sitting with it.

“Somebody big and important and insistent had to say to him, your life counts. It counts. And that helped me a lot, thinking about the ordinary people and presences from my life, and wondering, who were they? What was their story? What happened to them?” 



CB: I’ve also been thinking about that “why” a lot recently. Often, it’s hard to figure out how aware the character should be of their “why.” Because it obviously makes it easier, in some ways, when there’s a reason that’s clear or precise or concrete. Or some well-formed thing they’re seeking. But even when it becomes clear to you as the writer, it still may not become clear to the character.

DM: No, and maybe it shouldn’t be, in a way. You’ll always have a better sense of why your characters are the way they are. And you might think about the “why” and then go, well, you know, that isn’t a very interesting “why.” She’s just doing something predictable. And that isn’t going to make a great story. It’s representation, and it’s not a false story. But it’s just not very interesting. And so another concern becomes, how do you subvert or bend or undermine a reader’s expectations? How do you make them more alert or involved in the story because there’s a little surprise here or a little reversal there? If she’s just pining for her old boyfriend who moved back to that town, that’s just not very interesting. So it might be something else. Or maybe she thinks she knows what she’s doing, but circumstances change, or what happens to her or who she encounters alters her own idea of what she thinks she’s up to.


CB: That’s interesting. And it also makes me think of something else you said recently about characters who are “unhappily unfeeling.” This struck me, and calls to mind characters who are, essentially, actively not doing things. They might even be shells of themselves, or empty in some way.

DM: Yes. Characters who are hollowed out for some reason.


CB: Exactly. Hollowed out. How do you go about creating some fuel there, when there’s no fuel in that character? 

DM: That is a huge challenge. And yet, I understand why we write these characters. And maybe it’s especially appealing for writers in this era, or writers of a particular age—an age when you feel truly lost, when your patterns aren’t yet set. And ultimately, a lot of people are depressed. It’s not melodramatic to want to write about that. But sometimes it just doesn’t contain that much life, necessarily. So I think something you can do is let your eyes or attention slide away from that character’s hollowness or numbness and toward what actually happens as a result of being hollow or numb. For example, the character might miss a person who could’ve been someone with or for them, or it might turn out that they’ve been taking the wrong steps toward what they imagine to be happiness and aliveness. Or they learn that they’re an introvert, and they want to be alone in the woods. I think a lot of us are really afraid of being depressed, either because we have been ourselves or we just know the power, the weight, of it. But you don’t want to exhaust your reader. Surprises can still be contained in that state, and when we write about it, it’s important to show shifts or surprises that keep the reader invested.


CB: That makes sense. And what’s interesting is that I’ve also seen the weird kind of opposite of that, now that I think about it. Particularly as a teacher, I’ve seen young writers try to create what I call “quirks.” They give their characters as many “quirks” as possible, instead of actually developing them as people. And some of those quirks are good and vibrant details. But sometimes it borders on hyperbole or caricature, like when a character is an orphan with one eye who pops pills and is also coming out to his uncle.

DM: Oh yes, and he’s also running away from his parole officer.


CB: Exactly! So how do we avoid creating caricatures while also giving our characters vibrant qualities?

DM: Well, I think a lot of young writers—but also writers of all ages, really—sometimes don’t think that their own lives or the people they know are interesting. You know, Jim Welch, who was really a mentor of mine and an incredible writer, took some poetry classes with Dick Hugo when he first came to the University of Montana. At the time, he was just this skinny little guy who had been trying to go to business school. And when he first started writing poetry, he tried to write the way he thought a really fancy poet would write, about things that poets write about. And it was unintentionally fraudulent. It just wasn’t him. And Hugo finally said, write about what you know. Write about where you grew up, about who you know, about what happened to them. Write about what you think about when you’re back in that place. And they were difficult circumstances—Welch grew up on the reservation in far northern Montana. But that’s when it kicked in for Welch. And he published a chapbook of poems and then turned to fiction after that. But somebody big and important and insistent had to say to him, your life counts. It counts. And that helped me a lot, thinking about the ordinary people and presences from my life, and wondering, who were they? What was their story? What happened to them? 


CB: Absolutely. It really is about the subtleties and details from our lives. And we all know those people that intrigue us, those people who seem to have a quiet story within or around them. It seems important to write into that space.

DM: Right, and most fiction writers I know are very interested in that space. We’re kind of like existential voyeurs or something. We say, wow, there are question marks all around that person. What is it? What if this, or what if that? And then we go make it up.

“You’re going to have to stay with it, you’re embracing a sort of imaginative realm. And I think it really helps if there’s something that just gnaws at you, something you’ve never solved for yourself. Some question that nags at you.”



CB: Haha, exactly. So, I’d like to switch gears a bit. A couple years ago, I read two of your novels, Red Rover and My Russian. And I loved them both, and they’re obviously so different. But now, as I’m attempting to write my own place-based historical novel, I find myself returning to both novels to look at different things, to get clues or craft ideas. In Red Rover, in particular, your characters are a fictional part of a historical tapestry that involves World War II and the FBI—institutions and events that are very real and fact-based. And I was wondering how you approached creating a fictional foreground against this historical background?

DM: You know, Red Rover started as nonfiction. I worked on it for three years, thinking I was doing a quasi-memoir. I wasn’t alive during the time period when it takes place, but the story focused on the death of an uncle I actually had, who was the golden boy of my father’s family. And this death affected many things in my life. So I dug up some records and found that the woman who was the coroner here in Missoula when he died told the newspaper it was a suicide and that the shot was through the mouth. But she also filed a death certificate, which no one in the family had ever looked up, that said the cause of death was an accident and the shot was through the heart. And so that was sort of the start of it, that she lied one way or the other. That was compelling to me. So I got the FBI files, because my uncle had worked for the FBI, and began to look through them. But the issue was I knew I was never going to get to the end—I was never going to figure out what really happened. The FBI also thought it was an accident, but they know how to keep their secrets. So I thought, I’m going to start making up what happened. I thought, what could’ve happened? That was much more satisfying and fun to write, focusing on that “what if.” Those three years weren’t wasted, of course. I did a lot of research. And it just continued to absorb me, the “what could’ve happened.” Part of it, I guess, was that I had an obsession, and so what I was doing was identifying what haunted me. I think that applies to a lot of writing, whether it’s fictional or nonfictional. You’re going to have to stay with it, you’re embracing a sort of imaginative realm. And I think it really helps if there’s something that just gnaws at you, something you’ve never solved for yourself. Some question that nags at you.


CB: That’s fascinating. And yes, I think trying to identify or recognize that nagging obsession is so vital. And yet it also becomes an issue for me, because that obsessiveness that drives me also gets me bogged down in the research and fact-checking. I want what I’m writing to be accurate, and I get consumed by that. I’m trying to balance the research and the writing, trying to figure out what I can say with authority. But that stalls the writing. Do you have any strategies for navigating writing and research?

DM: Well, I’ve realized that if you’re writing fiction, you research in a different way than you do if you’re writing as a journalist or a historian. Because the latter wants the record. When I was a journalist, I felt it was crucially important that there be an accurate record. And I continue to think that’s important. But when I’m researching as a fiction writer, I’m way more concerned with the feel of things, because I have a character that’s going to be in the middle of a historical moment. What I think is most interesting to convey is not data but experience. How do the historical facts affect the feeling of that time and place? How might a character experience it? You need that underpinning; the reader should feel like, if I go look this up, there will be accuracy and truth to it. But it’s the writer’s job to provide an experience.


CB: That makes so much sense. In my case, I have a few people I’m able to interview, and I’m hoping I can find more, because I feel like they actually provide me with those textures and sensory details. Doing a few cursory Google searches is so insufficient.

DM: Right, exactly. And what you can do is ask yourself questions as you research to uncover what those details might be. For instance, what would the little “daily-nesses” be? What items are in the room? What does a place feel like? What does it smell and sound like?


CB: That actually leads into my next question about place specifically. I’ve been thinking about My Russian because it’s so rooted in place. Much of the novel happens in Greece, and that landscape is such an important part of the story. To you, what does it mean to create a place-based novel? What does it require?

DM: Well, I had to go back to Greece!


CB: Haha, of course! That’s not too bad for “doing research.”

DM: Not at all. I had gone to Greece in my twenties, and I loved it. And then, when I got going on My Russian, I thought: Well, where am I going to have this person go? And Greece was the obvious choice. So I went back, by myself. And I think it was good that I went alone. And I went to a relatively comfortable island where a lot of Athenians go, but it was still the off-season. And I just got a little room, up these white-washed stairs, and then walked a lot. I would get little pangs of aloneness, but for me, that can be really helpful sometimes. And it helped me begin to imagine this woman alone there. And it finally wasn’t so much about Greece. It was more about the getting there, riding the ferry boat, the travel itself. Travel has always been interesting to me—I like wondering what people are looking for, where they’re going, and what a place feels like to someone who’s traveling through it.


CB: It does feel important to re-immerse yourself in those places and spaces if you’re beginning to reconceptualize them in a novel.

DM: Right, right. And places don’t really exist apart from your emotions about them. They are physical entities, but our perception of them is entirely emotional. For example, when I went to Greece when I was younger, I was going through an extremely painful break-up with someone in the States, and so I associated getting this “it’s over” letter with where I was—in this hot little dusty Greek town. And I was sick, and was just at my wit’s end. And so to go back, and have all the same sorts of smells and heat and colors but to be in a different stage of my life, was really interesting.


CB: I completely agree. And when it comes to writing, it can be helpful to think of “place as emotions.” It reminds us that any place we render on the page is still existing through someone’s consciousness—through their mood and fears and desires.

DM: Right. Places are an instant trigger. And you know, writing a novel itself is a form of travel. You’re entering a different land. It’s a new place that you’re not very familiar with but that interests you, and you want to be there. But you have terrible days. Any travel is like that, especially if you haven’t swaddled yourself in money and comfort. Or if you don’t have people to put you up. There will be days when you’re sitting in the plaza at one in the morning wondering: Where am I going to sleep tonight?


Deirdre McNamer has written several novels, including Rima in the WeedsOne Sweet QuarrelMy Russian, and Red Rover, which was named a Best Book of 2007 by Artforum, The Washington Post, and the L.A. Times. Her stories and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, Doubletake, and the New York Times opinion page, and she has taught creative writing at the University of Montana for more than two decades.

Catalina Baker is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana. She received a BA in Social Thought and Political Economy from the University of Massachusetts, and she has worked as a professional writer and editor for seven years. She currently teaches academic and creative writing at the university, and she serves as an editor for CutBank. She also teaches creative writing to youth at the Missoula County Juvenile Detention Center.

 

 

 

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Chris Dombrowski

A Conversation with Chris Dombrowski

by Tommy D’Addario

Photo credit: Chris La Tray

Photo credit: Chris La Tray

Chris Dombrowski’s latest book of poems, Ragged Anthem, weds the poet’s obsessions of music and poetry in transcendent verse. He borrows song lyrics both internationally-known and relatively obscure to title many of these poems, invoking the wisdom of Joni Mitchell, Elton John, and The Tallest Man on Earth, to name a few. Chris and I met in a hip wine bar in downtown Missoula where everyone seemed to know the amiable writer, stopping by the table to say hello. 

We began discussing our shared pathways (separated by some years) from our childhoods in eastern Michigan, our undergraduate educations at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and now (though perhaps not finally) to our current home of Missoula, Montana. This connection made Chris think of the thirteenth-century philosopher, theologian, and mystic, Meister Eckhart. Thus our interview began, not with a question, but in medias res. 

(Note: Chris frequently quoted friends and writers during our interview. The poet would like the reader to know these quotes were from memory and off the cuff; many quotes should not be considered strictly accurate.) 


Chris Dombrowski: I first encountered Eckhart through the poetry of Norman Dubie. He had an old book called The Clouds of Magellan. It was a really brilliant book of aphorisms. He had this one quote I attached to early on; Eckhart said something like, “Blessed are they who have heard this meditation. Had there been no one here I would have preached it to the poor box.” And Dubie says in essence, if you don’t understand what that means you can never be a poet. So who knows? We probably have more connection than we can know. 

Tommy D’Addario: You use lyrics from various popular songs as titles to these poems. You’ve also mentioned the importance of music to your poetry and your life, in general. When and how did you see this project unfold?

CD: I had a great high school teacher that forced us to examine song lyrics as poetry, as art. That was probably my first introduction to poetry. My parents weren’t musicians but my dad listened to a lot of music, so I was naturally inclined to memorize song lyrics. I remember a time after Paul Simon’s Graceland came out, driving to Florida with my parents listening to the album on repeat, thinking for the first time, Wow, this is amazing. Almost what I’d call my first encounter with that form of art. 

Much later I was teaching at Interlochen Center for the Arts and the wonderful poet Kwame Dawes came up to give a reading. (He also wrote the definitive book on the lyrics of Bob Marley, Natural Mystic.) We took a walk one day, talking about our favorite Paul Simon lines, quoting them back and forth to each other for some forty-five minutes. I remember thinking, Okay, so I’m not the only one who thinks songwriting is an art that is occasionally on par with poetry. Soon after I started harkening back to my old teacher Jim Colando, and began using song lyrics as titles in this collection. Eventually I found that not all of them worked the way I thought they would. I thought some lyrics would have universal meaning, but they didn’t. When poet Jenny Montgomery read the manuscript, she’d circle certain lyrics and research the artist, showing me the lyrics didn’t hold up, that some of the connections were too personal. 

Others weren’t. The poem, “Just a little green, like the nights when the northern lights perform”, comes from a Joni Mitchell line. The lyric offers some context as the poem contains images of the northern lights and is also about youth, so perhaps the notion of “green” starts to resonate as well. If you think of Joni Mitchell in that context, her album Blue is permeated with this sense of broken love and longing. So I was hoping at their best that the lyrics would do that, put a glaze over the poem itself. Sometimes I think they did, sometimes they don’t. 

There’s a poem in there called “Poem in Which I Lose My Wish to Drown,” which is a poem about deliverance. The title is a line from The Tallest Man on Earth. I was enduring a dark stretch. We were living on Lake Michigan and I was making these Rothko landscapes with my car window all the time. I was teaching creative writing at Interlochen, but I was fortunate to have a number of visual artists as students, too. On the lake one day I had this moment of profound encounter with what I deemed at the time to be the ghost of Rothko. This sounds crazy, I know, but I believe that places can contain the trace of experience in them. I believe that when we go to a place where trauma has been experienced, or awe, or wonder, that we can feel that—sensitive beings can feel that. So I was out in the middle of this bay, fishing alone, and it was dusk. I caught this fish and I was going to eat it. I gutted it, I cleaned it out, and it was a female fish and the roe spilled out onto the white floor of the boat. I was slammed by this feeling that Rothko wanted into the experience. My line was “Once again Rothko’s ghost /  demands to inhabit my body.” And I really felt like that, that the spirit of the artist wanted to partake in the experience. Later, composing the poem, I came to the “epiphany” that what he desired was the color of these orange eggs spilling onto the white floor. But he couldn’t have it and I could, because I was still here, I was still on earth. So my own despondency, my own depression was met by the unassailable fact that I was alive, and that my living was something that the dead desired. So that was a poem that wouldn’t have come to me without that song lyric in my head.

TD: Your poem “Francis” meditates on a Catholic saint, Francis of Assisi. What influence do you find this spirituality having on your poetry?

CD: That Francis one is strange. I think a lot of poems in this book have an inherent strangeness to them. I think authentic spirituality surprises us. It has a level of the sublime or the unexpected. Back to Dogen; he says somewhere—and this is a bad paraphrase—“rote sayings and chants are not the way to liberation,” or something like that. I guess the interpretation is that you have to become open enough to the world striking you and finding you in a surprising way. I think that’s what the posture of poetry is: an openness, a vulnerability. The poet becomes a vessel for experiencing this particular incarnation at the deepest, most authentic level. Of course, you must pair that level of sensitivity with a rigor and technique that allows for the reader to comprehend, to feel enacted by the experience you’ve approached. 

But back to Francis: I had a dear friend spend some time in Capuccini where Francis lived. Francis was a fascinating character because like the Buddha he was born into wealth, but he shunned the regal life. My friend brought me several little rocks from the grounds that I mention in the poem.  I tried to dig them, hang with them, and see what they told. That poem is very straightforward, autobiographically. 

TD: So that dream portion was an actual dream?

CD: It was. In the poem I say, “What happened next, I feel stirred to say, / was dream, not writing, not me writing now.” That wasn’t a gesture, that was straight. I wanted it to be clear that my creative energies had not entered the description of the dream. As a reader, you either believe it or you don’t, but I hope at that point in the poem that the ethos of the speaker has been established and the reader is inclined to believe it. That muddling of the statuesque Francis with the “living” one—a phantasm, as Eckhart would’ve called it—approaches the notion that iconography is perhaps more “attainable” than the flesh is. I just went with that. I liked, too, that the Francis character in the poem took on a multiple gender. It made me think about anima and animas, our true nature. It’s a strange poem, so I buried it near the back of the book, and buried within the poem is the notion that prayer is probably something we’re struck with, not something we’re taught. 

“Any art requires vulnerability. Keats called it negative capability. The ability to be wounded, struck, to be dumbstruck out of whatever state you thought you’d earned. If you can’t let a poem hit you like that, then why write it?”

TD: And in Catholicism, saints act as intercessors for prayers. 

CD: This gets to the notion of adoration; the James Galvin quote that opens the book is “Imagination is that around which / Mysteries assemble for devotion.”

TD: Who were some of your mentors?

CD: Mentors kind of find you where you are and show you a path to the next place. David James Duncan has become a dear friend of mine, really my first reader. I used to read his books in the basement of the Hope College library, and now he’s the closest of friends, an uncle to our children. My wife Mary and our children are mentors: kids weed out every level of self-importance that you have, and I have plenty of that, so there’s that. Jim Harrison came along at just the right moment. 

TD: I know you two were close.

CD: Right. There was a book of his that hit me just at the right time. During my first book I was writing poems that were heavily imagistic and squeezed out of the tiniest of holes, producing a level of density that I’d begun to not really trust. I didn’t think they were very vulnerable. I think that any art requires vulnerability. Keats called it negative capability. The ability to be wounded, struck, to be dumbstruck out of whatever state you thought you’d earned. If you can’t let a poem hit you like that, then why write it? So Harrison published this book, In Search of Small Gods. It’s just a doozy, a reckoning of sorts for Harrison. He said that his whole life he had pursued the large, but age set in and began to demand that he shrink down and pay attention to the tiniest of things. It’s a sentiment I’ve since seen repeated in the eco-philosopher Paul Shepard as well, the notion that the “medicine” of these big animals is too much to take. Stick to the turtles, stick to the birds, stick to the moths and the butterflies, and they’ll tell you everything you need to know. Harrison writes very openly about what he calls the emissaries of the natural world, the rivers, trees, and creatures that help to transport him out of depressions. In a poem called “The Green Window” he says, “By accident my heart lifted with a rush.” It’s always by accident, right? The authentic always comes to us by accident. Going back to that Dogen notion, it’s not rote phrases or repeated prayers that lead us to enlightenment, but vulnerability to experience. That poem is about coming out of a long depression, and there’s a fair amount of Ragged Anthem that deals with mental instability. And Harrison says that poem is a record of deliverance which is never far away but often quite invisible. 

TD: Your writing expresses some Buddhist teachings. Is that a big influence on your way of life?

CD: The universe is continually in flux, in change, so any hardening or intellectual cementing against that constant will screw with us. The one thing you see about the Buddha as a teacher and a leader is his ability to reshuffle his cards and change his original approaches to things. At one time he wasn’t letting women into discipleship, for instance, but after a few years he changed his mind. It’s a philosophy of embracing the constancy of change and not becoming rigid in one’s viewpoint. 

Look at a male deer, a buck. It goes for a year and grows a button buck. Then it gets a spike. Then it sheds those antlers and it becomes a fork horn. Then it sheds those and becomes a basket buck, and so on. Nature is completely one with with the notion of revision and yet we as humans are not. 

“Stick to the turtles, stick to the birds, stick to the moths and the butterflies, and they’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

 

TD: These poems contain a strong sense of place, alternating between Montana and Michigan. Do you still identify as a Midwesterner?

CD: I would describe places in Michigan to my friend, the poet Melissa Kwasny, and she said, “It sounds like a soft place.” And that’s a great description of it. But like the novelist Jeff Hull says, You go home to find out why you left. Adolescence is suffering. I had a great childhood, but even a good childhood is still suffering. You go back to a place like that and can’t help but wade through that. You can’t just push it aside. So I don’t consider myself a Midwesterner. There’s the Bob Hicok line, “I think of Michigan as the place I go to be in Michigan.” I love it, but I go there and think, “Where am I?” I’m glad there are a few “Michigan poems” in this book to pay homage to the place. 

TD: The first section of the book uses the elegy form to meditate on experiencing the deaths of certain people throughout your life. But there is also an element of humor often mixed into these poems. 

CD: I’m afraid of being earnest in poetry. I think it’s a bad stand-in for authenticity. So I try to use humor to mediate. I didn’t intend for this large a portion of the book to be elegiac when I started, but it popped out that way. I never refuse a poem when it comes to me; I try to write it and give it as much of myself as I can. Certain poems insist that they exist. The “Going Home” poem is an elegy for three of my friends from high school that all died at a similar time and also my grandfather who I only met once. It became a reckoning—here’s your long elegy, what are you going to do with it? And yet the living earth kept demanding its time on stage. There are two black wolves that appear in the poem. “Why are you insistent that the elegiac mode is a superior way to navigate the world?” to steal an idea from Robert Hass. It’s not. 

I met those black wolves on the river one day. I’d been to visit Harrison and I was fishing the Boulder River. Black wolves in the Yellowstone area are part of the original strain, they’re not the reintroduced wolves, so they’re even more rare than the average wolf you’d see there. An alpha male and female crossed the river in front of me onto this hillside and began calling to their pack on the other side of the river. I couldn’t help but be moved by the proverbial symbolism of that. Here they were, calling back and forth to one another. So I went back to Jim’s for dinner. And whenever I went to Jim’s for dinner, I’d sit by his wife Linda, since she was always the smartest at the table. I’d begun to tell the story of this wolf encounter, and Linda set her glass of wine down, dumbfounded. She said, “Two black wolves singing in the middle of the day? Do you realize what that means?” It shook me out of myself. Again, I think on some level these creatures become emissaries transporting us out of our ego, or whatever state of ourselves that we need to transcend. Even in the midst of that poem as an elegy, these wolves are an anti-elegy. “Did you ever see a wolf?” I ask to my friend who was sawed in half by the men who murdered him, to whom he owed money for dealing drugs. He was thrown into the river in two halves. 

So the first section contains the elegies. The second section is a little more of an encounter with the contemporary, if you will, to a hopefully humorous end or two. And the third section I think of as coming to terms with the feral creature-ness of family. Thankfully, we have three kids, so life is very much out of control. Life is more interesting that way than if we had some kind of, you know, grip on it. 

TD: I saw heaven as a recurring theme throughout the book, especially the first section. Rivers are an important theme in the book as well—sites of death, sites of journey, of crossing. 

CD: The river as a metaphor has a rich tradition in literature. You go back to Heraclitus saying you can’t step into the same river twice, which James Galvin riffs on, saying you can’t step into the same river even once, it’s always a different river. I spend enough time on rivers to know I might be floating a given stretch on a given day, say between Clear Water Junction and Roundup Rapids on the Blackfoot. But that’s a division that I’m making. The river is the same river literally from its headwaters all the way to the mouth—and this is the beautiful thing about the names of rivers—when the Blackfoot flows into the Clark Fork, it loses its name. When the Clark Fork flows into the Columbia it loses its name. The Columbia flows into the ocean, it loses its name. So this notion that we have some separate existence is really arbitrary. I was trying to get at the notion of time in “Going Home.” Our comprehension of it is just that—limited. A river has eternity built into its core. 

Czeslaw Milosz has a great poem about the beauty of evening, and he says, essentially, “If eternity is eternity the way we were taught to believe it, and the light is consistent throughout it, then there wouldn’t be dawn, and there wouldn’t be evening, and that wouldn’t be fair, because it’s the most beautiful time of day, and that’s too tough a nut for a theologian to crack.” So I was trying to play a little with that in the first line. And then, ironically, James Galvin read this poem and told me to drop the first two lines—a little too telling. But I kept them because I like them. 

TD: What is your anthem for today? What song has you obsessed?

CD: That’s funny—I get so addicted to music that I actually had to delete it all off my phone about a month ago. I’ll get into this fugue-ish way, I’ll listen to one song which makes me think of another song, and I’ll just go go go. And I’m working hard on this new nonfiction manuscript (which is actually past due), so I thought if I just listened to instrumental music it would be better for me, and it has been. 

But a song that struck me a week or two ago was a Paul Simon off of his Hearts and Bones album, I think it’s called “Song About The Moon.” He says, “If you want to write a song about the moon, / walk along the craters of the afternoon, / when the shadows are deep and the light is alien / and gravity leaps like a knife off the pavement.” That’s kind of a perfect cross-section of what he’s always doing. I’m in constant debt to my friend (the musician) Jeffrey Foucault, who’s often sharing his new roughs with me, so I always have his new songs in mind. My wife Mary is picking up her guitar again after a hiatus. If I hear her play one song a night, I feel pretty happy. She plays this old Guy Clark tune a bit, “Dublin Blues,” which has a great line, a kind of lovely little ode to a sensibility I often see displayed here in Missoula. He says, “I’ve seen the David / the Mona Lisa, too / and I’ve heard Doc Watson play ‘Columbus Stockade Blues’.” He’s using parataxis to place the grandest art ever created on level with a solo by the bluegrass singer Doc Watson. So I’ve been thinking about that. 


Chris Dombrowski is the author of the memoir Body of Water (Milkweed Editions), a Bloomberg News Best Book of 2016, as well as three full length collections of poetry, most recently Ragged Anthem (WSUP, 2019). His poems have appeared in over a hundred anthologies and journals including Guernica, Gulf Coast, Orion, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, and The Southern Review. For the better part of two decades, he has taught creative writing to a vast array of age groups, most recently as the William Kittredge Visiting Writer-in-Residence in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Montana. He lives in Missoula, where he guides the rivers, directs the Beargrass Writing Workshops, and makes his home with his loveably feral family.

Tommy D'Addario was born in Detroit, Michigan, and has lived on both of the Mitten's coasts. He's a second-year poet in the MFA program at the University of Montana. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Columbia Journal, Southern Indiana Review, Ruminate, and RHINO, and he has published fiction in The Susquehanna Review. He also holds a Lilly graduate fellowship.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Max Mahn

A Conversation with Max Mahn

by Miles Jochem

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I sat down with Max Mahn, founder of Twin Home Prints, for a conversation about art and working in a creative industry. Mahn received his BFA from the University of Montana and now runs a small business making gig posters for touring musicians, as well as artwork for events and organizations such as KBGA and the Montana Book Festival. Mahn’s work is detailed and complex, and it draws on traditions as diverse as graffiti, cartoons, graphic novels, commercial illustration, and (in a skeptical and irreverent fashion) fine art. He had a lot to say about creative careers, the relative value of academic and industry education, and Banksy’s self-destructing painting.


Miles Jochem: Are you from Missoula, originally?

Max Mahn: Yep, born and raised. But I recently moved down to Wyoming. My girlfriend is going to nursing school down there. She’s from there, with in-state tuition and cheap school, so, you know…

MJ: Yeah, why not? In Powell, right?

MM: Yeah, right outside of Cody.

MJ: Cool. Well, here’s my first question: In an interview with JustPrintmaking.com in May, you mentioned that you were about to quit your day job and go into business full-time as an artist and freelancer.

MM: That happened!

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MJ: You made a joke in the interview: “Check back in a few months and see what restaurant I’m working in.”

MM: Luckily, I haven’t even had to apply to a restaurant. It’s worked out pretty good. The expenses are really cheap in Wyoming, which has helped out, but also I’ve been super busy; a lot busier than I thought I would be. I think I was just scared in the first part of finally doing it because if it didn’t happen, it would be like the thing I wanted to do with my life didn’t work out. But I finally bit the bullet and it’s working out, at least so far.

MJ: That’s awesome! I want to talk about your aesthetics a little bit. In the previous interview, you mentioned that you don’t see yourself as a traditional fine artist?

MM: Yeah.

MJ: I’m curious about the distinction that you make between what you do and “fine art,” especially given the fact that you have a university art degree. Also, the other thing I’m considering is that artists who work in more “popular” or graffiti-influenced styles have been getting a lot of traction in traditional art places like Sotheby’s or big museums. So I’m just wondering about why you see yourself as belonging to a separate tradition?

MM: Well, I did graffiti for about twelve years, so I learned a lot of my style from that, and it’s not a “strict” art form. I was taught in school that form follows content. That it’s about what your work means and your form will follow that. What you’re trying to say to people has to have some point or concept that you are trying to convey, some opinion, which I was always really bad at. I guess I’m more of an illustrator. I like there to be a story. It doesn’t have to be some specific thing to push on the viewer. I’m okay with whatever people want to take from it and I like to just be goofy and have fun. But you bring up a good point with street art or graffiti popping into the fine art world, and there’s always that gray area of whether it’s accepted or not, whether it should even be on gallery walls. So I guess, everything I had hammered into my head by the fine art world I have disagreed with: for example, that no one can tell you what to do, this idea of prestige. I take clients’ ideas, I collaborate with people. It’s lowbrow art in a way. I sell a poster for twenty bucks. I don’t want someone to have to have five thousand dollars to buy one of my pieces.

MJ: That’s the beauty of printmaking, right? You can make an edition instead of a single piece.

MM: Yeah, and I want it to be accessible to everybody. I don’t think my art should be something you critique all that hard.

MJ: So you shy away from, maybe, the pretention of fine art?

MM: Yeah.

MJ: Maybe the distinction is less of a visual aesthetic than a mindset?

MM: Yeah, and maybe it’s not even pretention because I don’t dislike fine art. I enjoy fine art. I know what they’re doing. I understand what they’re doing, but with what I create I have a different mindset completely, as I think a lot of graphic designers and illustrators do.

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MJ: That was sort of my next question: do you think your mindset is related to the fact that most of your work has a commercial element to it, that someone else is contracting you to do a job, and you’re working within that parameter?

MM: I would say no, mainly because I create art prints as well that are in the same imagery field. I just like creating them. It’s kind of a bonus when you get to work with one of your favorite bands, because the feeling is “I can’t believe I’m doing this, this is amazing!” I would say, for pretty much anything I do, I don’t have that in mind. It is definitely commercial merchandise that I’m selling, but even my art prints I try to keep at a low price and not take too seriously.

MJ: I noticed your first professional gig was Shannon and the Clams, right?

MM: Um, professional in a way. I didn’t get paid, but it was the first time I was actually making a poster for a band that existed in the world. My first paid thing was for Yonder Mountain String Band.

MJ: Cool. I love Shannon. She’s an amazing vocalist.

MM: Yeah, they’re awesome.

MJ: Sort of related to that, I wanted to ask you: Banksy’s self-destructing painting: silly publicity stunt or profound commentary?

MM: There are so many aspects of it that I like and I hate... I don’t know. Banksy is...

MJ: He’s one of the artists who has bridged the gap between graffiti and the fine art world.

MM: I hate saying this in an interview, but I am not the biggest Banksy fan. He makes street art, and he does that very well. I don’t understand why his street art is the street art that made it into museums and made him very popular. Just because I think his imagery is very cliché a lot of the time. You know, there’s not too much thought put into it. Which is what I like, and that’s great, but I don’t think that belongs in a fine art gallery. But maybe I’m talking myself down now though, I don’t know.

MJ: Does your art belong in a fine art gallery?

MMNo! Not at all.

MJ: Have you ever exhibited in a gallery before?

MM: Yeah. I mean, through school you’re always asked to submit to auctions and stuff like that. It just never felt like the right place. You know, people dressed up really nice and looking at my weird cartoon people with, like, weird noses and heads cut in half. It doesn’t feel right. However, the [Banksy] cutting piece, I thought was really cool. I had a professor in college who did the exact same thing, though, five years ago. So I just assume Banksy is copying artists in Missoula (laughter).

MJ: That’s a bold claim! You had a professor who had a self-destructing piece of art?

MM: Jack Metcalf, for his MFA show, had this big elaborate walk through place at the Crystal Theater, which is now that Gild Brewery, and the final length of the walkthrough was this private room that you go in and he had this giant drawing and he had this machine which was cutting it. It was a crazy machine. It would make one cut and then it would kind of scroll down like an inch, and then it would cut. For the entire show it was destroying this huge drawing that he did.

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MJ: Wow, that’s almost like a performance, then. Is he still a professor?

MM: He’s an adjunct, I think. At that time he was doing his masters, but he taught classes. But I like the idea of destroying something. That’s really funny to me, especially when someone is spending that much money.

MJ: Twenty million dollars or something like that.

MM: Yeah, and I think it backfired on [Bansky], just because it’s got to be worth more now.

MJ: It didn’t have the intended effect?

MM: Yeah, but I know that’s not what he, or she or they or whatever Banksy is, was going for. So I appreciate that. I appreciate everything that Banksy does. It’s just sometimes the imagery and how much the world knows him baffles me a little bit.

MJ: Well, the notion of celebrity in art has always been fraught with things that have less to do with the art itself. I would argue that the painting being destroyed maybe draws on some eastern traditions, such as Buddhist sand mandalas, where they spend days and days on a work and then sweep it away. So Banksy didn’t invent that idea.

MM: No, but he did use it very well, and to have it go off right when the auction ends, I think that’s pretty genius. It was very dramatic. It made me laugh when I read the article.

MJ: Banksy’s done it again!

MM: He’s done it again!

MJ: Are there other street artists or graffiti artists that you do particularly admire or that you try to model yourself after?

MM: Growing up, graffiti was primarily what I was into. I wasn’t all too much into street art. It didn’t really appeal to me. Graffiti—as in letter-based, spray can, no stencils or anything like that—always interested me. And there are tons of people out there. I’m almost glad that I stopped because people nowadays are just insane with how good they are. Like, how do you do that with a spray paint can? People are constantly coming up with new techniques. It’s funny, because all it is is writing a name, over and over. To have that carry on since the seventies—it’s been fifty years and people are still inventing new ways to do it. It’s just insane.

MJ: I agree. I’ve fooled around with spray cans a little bit, but it’s hard.

MM: It’s very hard.

MJ: We can switch gears a little bit. I’d like to hear about your process in terms of the gig posters. They form the bulk of your artistic practice, right?

MM: Yeah.

MJ: Do bands typically give you an idea of what they’re looking for or how they want it to look in the end?

MM: It’s different with every band. Some bands are really strict about their imagery. As I would be, if I were a band. And they always get final approval. Most bands just say, “Give us a concept sketch, something really basic, we’ll approve it or deny it, and then just go from there and make it.” Which is great. I’ve had a few bands, though, where every time you submit a final thing they want little things changed. Which I think is common in any illustrative or graphic design world, but gig posters, I would think maybe they do it a little less just because they’re picking the artist and they understand that it’s not paying super insane amounts of money. Like, someone who makes a logo can get $20,000, but gig poster artists typically aren’t making that kind of money. It’s a give and take, but most times bands are really cool with you just doing your thing.

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MJ: When there is a back and forth, do you find that frustrating or do you enjoy the process?

MM: No, I’m pretty stubborn, so I like to do things in a certain way. I don’t do it because I’m cutting a corner. I usually want things to look a way for a reason. But I totally understand where they’re coming from. As I was saying, if I were a band, I would be very critical of imagery surrounding my band.

MJ: Totally. Do they ever just reject things outright?

MM: Yeah. That’s kind of heartbreaking. And then you look at that design as if it’s not a good design, even though I know it’s just that band’s taste and I could probably use it for something else. That also happened more when I was starting out and didn’t know what I was doing as much, but now I’ve kinda got in the groove, I know how much to update the band with my process, and stuff like that. Communicating more helps keep both sides happy.

MJ: When you’re designing a poster for a band, to what extent do you consider the musical aesthetics of the band, and how do you see that as being related to the visual aesthetics? Do you think it’s possible to portray a musical sound with a visual look?

MM: Yeah. I always try to do that. Sometimes it’s hard because I do have my own very specific style, which is primarily cartoony illustrations. But I’ll always listen to the band. Even if it’s not my cup of tea, I will listen to it for hours on end to try to figure out what they’re doing and what kind of imagery they do, like by looking at past gig posters and stuff like that. I try to create something new for them that still fits in the same realm.

MJ: Are there any bands out there that have a particular visual aesthetic that you admire, or that have a very careful understanding of their visual aesthetic?

MM: Every genre has a pretty specific aesthetic. Bluegrass music kind of has that folky, vintage-y look to it. Then there’s punk rock, which wants the DIY look, like scruffed- up and looks like it’s been thrown around.

MJ: I feel like punk posters are their own category.

MM: Yeah. But to say that one is my favorite, it’s probably low-fi, indie rock, punk stuff.

MJ: You just described your work as cartoonish. Do you have any other words you would use to describe your aesthetic or your tradition?

MM: Mainly I would say cartoony because I deal with characters a lot, like those floating heads, and I hand draw everything first and then bring it into the computer, which is common with most comic strips and stuff like that. But every poster varies a little bit. Sometimes I’ll use found images and sometimes I’ll draw things myself.

MJ: I would call your art “eclectic,” maybe? It’s also visually detailed and busy. Not a minimalist type of art. Almost a maximalist art.

MM: Yeah, the more chaotic I can make it the better. And you threw my name in there! I’m going with that.

MJ: Maximalist art by Max. Cool, I want to switch gears one more time. I’d to hear about the experience of your professional life, working as a full-time artist in western states that are far from the traditional cultural centers of New York, L.A., and San Francisco. Do you find that your geographic location is a disadvantage, or possibly an advantage, in your field?

MM: Definitely not a disadvantage. I wouldn’t say that, except for travelling to poster shows and stuff like that. You know, Wyoming is the middle of nowhere.

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MJ: Where do you even fly out of?

MM: Exactly. But, no, most of my stuff will get shipped to the venue, so I can work from wherever, and also being from Missoula gives me the opportunity to reach out to bands, like, “Hey, I see you’re coming through Missoula, do you want a poster from a local artist?” The response has usually been “No, we already have a poster, but maybe let’s fit you in somewhere else on the tour.” So being in a small town almost helps.

MJ: Do people contact you, for the most part, or do you contact them?

MM: Usually it’s me reaching out and it’s a lot of not hearing back. But the more people you know the easier it is to do it. You know, you’ll get in touch with the manager and they’ll manage ten bands. Slowly they’ve been reaching back out to me, so I’m finally getting to that point. It’s only taken four or five years. I still email people a lot, but I’m finally having a few people ask me to do posters, which is a crazy honor.

MJ: You just moved from Missoula to Powell, Wyoming, which is an even smaller city in an even less populous western state. Did you find it constraining or liberating to move to a more rural location in terms of your work and professional life?

MM: That’s hard. For practical, art life, it’s easier. I’m not tempted by going out with friends and getting beers and going out to eat. I’ve had a lot more time down there to do my thing, which I think is good, especially starting off. We eventually want to move somewhere else, maybe back to Missoula or somewhere else, so it will be good to have that start of my independent business where I can throw all my time into it.

MJ: I know this is probably a pretty clichéd question, but do you have advice for the many young people at UM who aspire to an artistic career or who want to do something similar to what you’re doing?

MM: I always tell people, work in your field.

MJ: You mean that you worked in a t-shirt shop?

MM: Yeah. And school’s a good way to learn a lot of things, depending on what school you go to. But I learned the majority of my technical ability through a shirt shop, where there is no messing up. You have to do everything right. You’re not going to throw away a bunch of leftover shirts. I remember in school, making prints, you would throw half the run in the trash because it’s trial and error. But once you work in the field you learn how to do it perfect. So that would be my biggest advice: work in your field, even if it’s just for a few years to save up money to get your own equipment or your own set up and learn from the people who are doing it professionally, even if they’re not using it in the same way you want to use it. Like, for painters: frame shops, if you learn how to build your own things you will save so much money and all that knowledge will help you so much in the long run.

MJ: Pre-stretched canvas is expensive.

MM: Exactly, and they look so much nicer when you stretch them yourself.


Max Mahn is a printer and illustrator working between Montana and Wyoming. He received his BFA from the University of Montana and is the founder of Twin Home Prints.

Miles Jochem was born in Pocatello, Idaho, but escaped to the (relative) leftist metropolis of Bozeman, Montana, after second grade. He graduated from Bozeman High School, attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and witnessed the empirically determined final years of Portland being “cool” before its ultimate surrender to overpaid tech bros who think they like art. After stints as a kayak guide and bread delivery driver, he returned to Montana to pursue degrees in literary analysis and poetry. His other interests include hiking, hiking with dogs, skiing, and the killing and eating of Montana’s native deer population. 

 

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Sarah Aswell

A Conversation with Sarah Aswell 

by Miranda Morgan

Sarah Aswell writes for  The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Scary Mommy, MAD Magazine , and  Reductress .

Sarah Aswell writes for The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Scary Mommy, MAD Magazine, and Reductress.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of sharing a cup of tea and conversation with local writer, comedian, and University of Montana MFA graduate, Sarah Aswell. After seeing Sarah perform stand-up as Mother Theresa and fangirling over her impeccable timing and deadpan delivery, I knew I had to meet her. We talked about life after an MFA program, fostering fake confidence, fire trucks, the relationship between stand-up and writing, and what the stand-up comedy scene needs now. 


Miranda Morgan: Did you write humorous pieces when you were at the University of Montana’s MFA program? From my experience, humor writing seems to be punished in MFA programs—what are your thoughts? 

Sarah Aswell: It does! Since I was a kid, I’ve liked writing funny stuff. When I was 10, I would write these fake newspapers, like the Onion, except for 10-year-olds. In college, I had a humor column. It was kind of inspired by Dave Barry who was a humor writer in the 80s and 90s. When I went to graduate school though, I felt like I had to be serious. Not only was this a serious commitment I was making to my writing career (it was really expensive because I didn’t have a teaching assistantship) but the atmosphere was much more serious as well. So, I tried to be a serious fiction writer, and it didn’t go well. Have you ever done something you thought you wanted to do, but as soon as you started doing it, you realized it wasn’t for you? It’s like your whole spirit rebels against it. You don’t try as hard, you kind of hurt yourself. Some of my stories were funny, but they weren’t very good. 

I kind of discovered I wasn’t a great fiction writer in the MFA program which was a tough lesson to learn. I’d get feedback on my stories that would say, “This story would be stronger if you eliminated the talking parrot,” and I’d be like, “No! The talking parrot was the only part I liked about it!” I took an experimental writing class with Kevin Canty where we could have a lot more fun and be surreal—that’s when I really enjoyed writing. I think all of the pieces I’ve done for the New Yorker have directly been inspired by that class. These flights of fancy, just thinking about things in the abstract—like, “Oh, I’m going to write from the point of view of a knife.” And it’s okay! Because in humor it’s okay to be silly or weird. It’s not judged that way. 

 

MM: I wrote a piece about a really bad Tinder date I went on in LA, and it was totally destroyed in workshop because everyone was like, “Well, what’s the larger commentary? This should say something about dating culture, what’s the significance here?” I just wanted it to be a funny thing. 

SA: I want to say two things about that. I feel like women are often told two separate things that are contradictions. First, women are told to just lighten up. “Why don’t you smile more? Why are you so serious?” We’re punished for being serious, and at the same time, if we’re goofy or silly, we’re told, “Well, that’s meaningless, that doesn’t have value.” We’re told we don’t have value whether or not we’re trying to be funny. It sucks. I also want to argue that humor writing can be super serious and super important. There are a couple of women doing that right now. Alexandria Petri has a humor column in the Washington Post and she’s extremely funny, but since the current administration came in in 2016, she’s written some really funny political commentary that also makes you cry. She had a piece two days ago about Brett Kavanaugh, “Some Interpersonal Verbs, Conjugated by Gender”. It shows that humor can do heavy lifting. A lot of my stuff is just silly, and that’s okay. We should have an escape. I give you permission to write that piece. 

“Women are told to just lighten up. ‘Why don’t you smile more? Why are you so serious?’ We’re punished for being serious, and at the same time, if we’re goofy or silly, we’re told, ‘Well, that’s meaningless, that doesn’t have value.’ We’re told we don’t have value whether or not we’re trying to be funny.”

 

MM: Thank you. Do you think humor writing has limitations? Or perhaps it’s able to access subject matter in a more direct and unflinching way because of the guise of humor? 

SA: I think humor helps us. Going back to politics, if you look at social media or just the Thanksgiving day table, it seems so impossible to change people’s minds today. People get really upset really quickly; they get really tense, and you can see their minds closing. I’m talking about both conservative and liberal people. I think humor, especially stand-up comedy, can pry some of those doors open in a way that other forms of expression can’t. I don’t know if you saw Nanette, the Netflix special, but one of the things that Hannah Gadsby talks about is how half of the function of humor is making people uncomfortable, then releasing that tension and making them comfortable again. That release produces laughter. I think stand-ups have the tools and the abilities to do it right—to create that tension, and sometimes it can be a political tension, or just an uncomfortableness, and then release that. And through that release, if you’re doing the best stand-up that you can, comes a moment where we see everybody as human and everything is okay. It can also just make you think. 

I’m probably seen as someone in the community who gets offended at a lot of things. They’re like, “Oh, Sarah didn’t like that stand-up,” and I think that’s because they’re doing it wrong. They’re not creating tension in the right way and then releasing it in the right way. Lots of comics, especially non-funny ones, just rely on shock—shock laughter or uncomfortable laughter. You don’t want uncomfortable laughter. You want the laughter that comes from the release of discomfort. If you don’t have a lot of jokes, the laughter might be coming from a place of “Get me out of here.” A kind of laughter many women are familiar with—on a Tinder date perhaps. 

 

MM: Oh yeah, so much uncomfortable giggling happened. 

SA: Nobody said, “I went to a comedy show last night and had a great time laughing uncomfortably.” It’s not good comedy, and I’m going to continue to be critical about that. 

 

MM: What was it like getting into the comedy community in Missoula? 

SA: It was awesome. Missoula is a special place. When I’ve traveled for comedy, it’s been really different. Missoula has a really welcoming community and a ton of writers in the community as well. Two of the other women I do comedy with, Becky Margolis and Keema Waterfield, are both MFA graduates. I think there’s a strong connection between writing and stand-up. It’s ever-changing. Right now, my big push it to get more women in the community—and it’s been working! I just celebrated the first anniversary of my comedy writer’s workshop (6 PM, the last Wednesday of every month at the Badlander.) We did a birthday bash and had 14 female comedians get on stage, some of them for the first time, others who’d been doing it for five or six years. It’s just getting better and better. 

 

MM: Have you done comedy outside of Montana? 

SA: Yeah, I’ve done a little teeny tiny bit. It’s very different, less intimate. I did the Big Sky Comedy Festival last year—national comedians come together for a week to do comedy in Billings. It was really hard to be small fish in a big pond and see some of the issues that affect comedy on the national scene as far as sexism, racism, amd homophobia. 

 

MM: I want to circle back to the relationship between writing and stand-up. Do you think they feed each other? 

SA: Yes! It’s so great. A lot of comedians have techniques for creating that I can use for writing and vice versa. Writers use prompts and ways of creating that comedians don’t necessarily know about, so I love mixing and matching those sorts of activities. For example, comedians will often record into their phones and talk or rant their ideas. I think that’s something writers basically never do. Different things come out of your mouth when you’re talking than out of your pen or your typing fingers. Bouncing back and forth between writing and talking is good. It’s also a really different process writing for the stage versus writing a humor piece for a publication. The same jokes don’t work both places. They have to be pretty precise. For a long time in stand-up, I told jokes like I would write and it didn’t go as well. 

 

MM: The jokes have to be more precise in stand-up or in writing? 

SA: Precise in different ways. Like in stand-up, you want people to laugh every 15-20 seconds. To do that, you have to boil down your joke into as few words as possible so you can get to the punch line quickly. You have to assume the audience knows a lot of stuff, and then just leave all of those things out of your joke. With writing, you have more time. You also don’t have your body or voice when you’re writing so you have to explain a lot more. 

 

MM: Was it like actually using your physicality in your art?

SA: One of the big differences between comedy writing and stand-up is that the only reason you get better at stand-up is by doing it. It’s an art that you practice in the moment that it’s being created. You don’t go to a theater and watch a painter create a painting. That would be super weird (actually, that sounds cool). With stand-up though, you’re making it in front of an audience every time. That’s where all of your lessons are learned. It’s really about getting on stage and bombing over and over again. Painful, painful lessons. Whereas with writing, I’m going to show a piece to my partner and see what he thinks. I’m going to show it to my writing group next, and then I’ll give it to an editor who will fix it, and then it will be published. There’s much more of a tiptoe process happening that you don’t get with stand up. 

 

MM: After you graduated from the MFA program—what did you do? What does it look like? 

SA: That’s a great question. So, after [graduation], I thought, “I’m not great at fiction writing, there’s a lot of people better than me at it, I’m going to go to NYC to be an editor in a high rise and edit novels.” It was just the worst idea. The way I tell people about it now, I say that I liked driving firetrucks so I thought I wanted to work in a firetruck factory. Not the same thing. Me and my partner moved to New York City right after graduation, and I got a job as an assistant editor at a [Penguin-owned] textbook publishing company. It was probably the most depressing two years of my life. It was really bad. Looking back, I’m like “Oh my god, I could have been going to open mics, I could have been writing packets for late night shows.” I just didn’t know I liked doing that stuff at that point. Instead, I was really miserable. I also don’t like living in the city. I need to be able to get out and away from people, noise, and lights on a regular basis. During that time, in my cubicle, while doing busy work, I started freelancing. As I got more and more freelance clients, I got worse at my job. Finally, I just said, “I have to go for this,” and I launched my freelance company in 2008. I started that February and by the summertime, Ben and I had enough work to live anywhere. We drove back to Missoula and we’ve been freelancing ever since. 

 

MM: How did you start getting freelance clients? 

SA: I read a book called, “The Well-Fed Writer” [by Peter Bowerman]. It’s probably pretty out-of-date now. I think it was published in the late nineties probably, but it was about how to start a freelance business basically and I just did every single thing that he said to do. A lot of it was cold calling, which was calling up companies and just being like, “Hi, do you need a writer?” 95% of the time they’re like, “Fuck off.” And then 5% of the time, they’re like, “We totally need a writer.” That’s how I did it. I fell into writing for personal injury attorneys which is funny. I still write for a couple—“If you or a loved one have been in a roller coaster accident, you need to talk to me today!” I paid off all my student loans that way, had time to write my own stuff and slowly transitioned into writing more of my own stuff.  

 

MM: I worked in the film industry in LA and I did sort of the same thing where I was like, “Oh well, I want to write, so I’m going to get a job in a creative industry.” I was so miserable because I was just reading shitty scripts all day and writing coverage of them. 

SA: What did that do to your creative process? 

 

MM: I didn’t want to write anything.

SA: Me neither. I didn’t write for almost two years. 

 

MM: It was so draining. Plus the culture is so toxic. 

SA: Yes. I found the same thing in NYC. You know, a lot of people are like, “How are you a writer or comedian if you don’t live in LA or NYC?” I think it’s a nice little secret that you can do new and fresh stuff away from those cultures. I interviewed Jane Smiley for the Montana Book Festival last year, and she said the same thing. She lived in Iowa City for many years and had a little group of writer friends there. It was like an island away from all the swirl of cutthroat, bad people. And even the good people! It’s just stressful. People are all doing the same thing or trying to copy the one hot writer. We have none of that. We can develop freely which is what I like about the comedy scene, too. I think the writing scene is the same here, too. 

 

MM: I realized that just being in a creative industry isn’t going to fulfill the fact that I want to write. 

SA: You were in a firetruck factory. But you’re a firetruck driver. It’s a hard lesson to learn. 

“The political act isn’t within the art, but in the creation and distribution of the art and in the encouragement of others.”

 

MM: What kind of material in either stand up or writing feels really urgent for you right now?

SA: That’s a really good and tough question. I don’t talk about politics or issues in my writing very much, and I think about that a lot. I even took a class online through Second City recently where I tried to learn how to do it because I think it’s important. And through the class, I was like, “Oh my god, I’m not a satire writer.” That’s not the type of humor that I write. I don’t write very good commentary on hot topics. But then I was talking to my friend Becky Margolis [UM MFA alumnus and comedian] and we were actually getting interviewed by the Missoulian about a show we were doing. The interviewer was asking us if our material was feminist. Becky said, “I consider anytime I step on stage an act of feminism,” and I was like, that’s right! That’s what I’m trying to say. I think by speaking, by creating, is how I’m responding to a lot of the issues I find important outside of my art. Just being visible and helping productions happen around town, helping writers get heard around town, doing things on a local level—running my women’s comedy workshop which is totally free, is a way for me to speak out. And not only speak out, but I want to change the culture. I do have these important issues but when I write, I’m writing about silly surreal things that don’t make sense, like mean ducks. I’m doing stand-up jokes about bagels and mimes—it's not like I’m making super important points. It’s like your Tinder story—it’s just funny. I hope it connects us with one another, though. I hope I point out human truths. I hope I’m saying true things, things that make people say, “Oh, that’s me. I get that.” And make people laugh! Oh my god, I just want to make people laugh. So for me, the political act isn’t within the art, but in the creation and distribution of the art and in the encouragement of others. Stepping on stage is an act of feminism. It’s the stepping on stage that can be metaphorical. 

 

MM: I know that you’ve been vocal about the allegations against Louis C.K. and the treatment of his case. What do we now [in light of the #metoo movement]? Where do we go from here? 

SA: I think it really is about changing the culture. The point about Louis C.K. has continued to be about how he’s not the problem—he’s a symptom. The way we’ve responded to Louis C.K. shows the problem in the stand-up community but also in the arts community. He got a standing ovation when he returned [to the Comedy Cellar in New York City]—why did that happen? We know the answer. It was mostly men in the audience. The women who were in the audience didn’t feel comfortable standing up for themselves in that environment. The owner of the club is a man. The promoter is a woman but was listening to her boss. She could have stood up and done something too, but it’s also a power thing. He went in there with no notice and said, “I want to go on [stage] tonight.” Are you going to say no to that powerful man? I really think the answer is getting more women, people of color, and queer people on stage. Stand-up is about telling your story. Right now, so many of the stories we hear are the straight white male story. We’ve only scratched the surface of what stand-up could be if more women, people of color, and queer people were up there. I think Nanette is a great example of what it could be. And a lot of men said that’s not stand-up comedy. Why did they say that? They said it because they don’t identify with it. Stand-up comedy is a lot about identity. A lot of women watched that and were like, “This is stand-up comedy that I like for the first time.” It’s just a different type of stand-up comedy. 

 

MM: Maybe we don’t know what female stand-up comedy even looks like! 

SA: We don’t! We’ve scratched the surface. There have been tons of great female stand-up comedians. But, you know, I went to a stand-up show in Missoula last weekend, a tour from out of town, three straight white males were the whole line-up, telling the same stories about their dicks. They were funny but my story wasn’t told that night. Literature has suffered from the same problems forever. They’re just kind of in a different place—slightly different. What’s that project? They evaluate all the different literary journals to see how many women are in each issue. (The 2017 Vida Count) It’s a really cool project. It’s shedding light on how off-balance things can be and what voices are actually heard. 

 

MM: For us MFA students who are graduating this year, what words of wisdom or advice do you have? 

SA: This is the biggest cliché of them all, but I would say to know what you’re passionate about and what you’re good at—that’s the thing you’re going to succeed in. I tried to do things I thought might help me pay off my student loans or help me have status or have a career. My career came out of doing the thing that I actually liked. I started having success when I decided to just screw it and started writing silly things. 

“I’m going to submit to editors and act like they’re my friends— ‘Hey Bob! Got a piece for you.’ Again, it doesn’t work all the time, but it works sometimes. That’s all you need. You just need sometimes.”

 

MM: That’s great. I love that advice! 

SA: My other advice is to—and this is specifically towards women—have confidence. I so wish I had the confidence ten years ago when I graduated that I have now. A lot of it is made-up confidence, but made-up confidence is just as good as real confidence. It works the same way. It’s like a synthetic version that’s 100% exactly the same. I read this article in The Atlantic about confidence and women and it was so eye-opening (A Lack of Confidence Isn't What's Holding Back Working Women). One of the statistics was about how men will apply for jobs even if they don’t have 70% of the qualifications, whereas women won’t apply for jobs if they’re lacking one single qualification. We just won’t do it. That really helped me when I was submitting my writing. I just thought, “I’m going to start submitting wherever I want.” I’m going to submit to editors and act like they’re my friends—“Hey Bob! Got a piece for you.” Again, it doesn’t work all the time, but it works sometimes. That’s all you need. You just need sometimes. Just take risks like that. Now, I look up editors all the time. I stalk them on Twitter. I guess their email addresses. Just throw yourself out there. 

I didn’t start stand-up until a friend dared me to. I had to be dared. I didn’t do it myself, and it can be a point of shame for me, but it also taught me to dare myself to do things more. This is a piece of advice from my dad: he always told me growing up, “Make them say no.” What “make them say no” means is that there’s no harm in asking for things if the worst thing you’re going to get is a “no.” Go ahead, ask and see. You’re going to get “no” a lot. Maybe that’s something I learned from cold-calling, too. You hear “no” over and over again until it doesn’t even feel like anything anymore. 

 

MM: Exposure therapy! 

SA: I’m in a Facebook group where we share with each other whenever we get rejected from something and we treat it like an accomplishment. We say, “I got rejected from The New York Times today and everyone is like, ‘Great job!’” Just be confident, get out there. Men don’t need that lesson. 

 

MM: No, they really don’t. 

SA: They need the opposite of that lesson. 

 

MM: Right. Come down a little bit. 

SA: Email your favorite writer! Tell them they’re your favorite writer. You’d be so surprised at what you get back. Reach out to people. You might get rejected. It’s okay. Hooray! 

 

MM: Do you think you have to leave Missoula to have a writing life here?

SA: No, I don’t. I do think you have to leave your house. You have to have experiences. One of the writers I had at Montana, Brady Udall, said if you write at your kitchen table all day, all you can do is write stories about your kitchen table. I think writers have a tendency to stay at their kitchen table so maybe resist that. I don’t think you can just be a writer. You have to be a writer and a something else. If you look at all of the best writers in history, they usually did something else, too. Have hobbies, have jobs, go do things. Have other passions. You can do that from Missoula, totally easily. Look at Walden—he sat next to a pond. That’s it. Literally it. Whatever you do, make sure you have the energy to create. Don’t lose that. 


Sarah Aswell is a graduate of the University of Montana’s MFA program and writes for places like The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Scary Mommy, MAD Magazine, and Reductress. She lives in Missoula, Montana with her family. 

Miranda Morgan is an MFA candidate in nonfiction, a writing instructor at the University of Montana, and current nonfiction editor at CutBank. She was born in Santa Fe, NM, and completed her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She’s worked in film development in LA and Austin.  

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: David James Duncan

Lessons in Craft with David James Duncan

by Amelia Morand

Photo credit: Chris La Tray

Photo credit: Chris La Tray

Amelia Morand: After you agreed to do this interview, I bought a copy of your first novel, The River Why, and read it over the holidays. This was my first encounter with your work, and I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner. Not only is it a beautiful novel, but the longer I live in Montana, the closer I feel to its literary canon, which your books are very much a part of. What do you think sets Montana writing apart? What does it mean to be a Montana writer?

David James Duncan: I’m a fourth generation Montanan. But I was raised in Oregon and when The River Why was written, I had spent no time here.  When I conceived the book, there was no such thing as “a fly-fishing novel.” There was one such novella: Norman Maclean’s 1976 masterpiece, A River Runs Through It. I hope it’s encouraging to you to know that A River Runs Through It andThe River Why were both rejected by every major publisher in the country. Twenty-five of them in my case. Maclean was finally published by his own university, and I was finally published when Sierra Club chose to make TRW their first work of fiction. Maclean and I both then had the delightful experience of having New York editors who’d rejected us with remarks that felt like slaps in the face come groveling after our second books. Norman wrote a letter to one of those publishers that reads like a Pete Townshend guitar solo at the Concert for New York. It ends like this:

 

If the situation ever arose when Alfred A. Knopf was the only publishing house remaining in the world and I was the sole remaining author, that would mark the end of the world of books.

                                                                                 Very sincerely,

                                                                                 Norman Maclean

 

I like to think that kind of eloquent orneriness sets a lot of Montana writing apart. I also think it’s fair to say that Norman and I penned a “canon” that for quite a few years consisted of two books total. I never met Maclean, but I feel close to him in that we were both inspired by a huge love for the river upon which we came of age (the Big Blackfoot for him, the Deschutes in Oregon for me) and by a lasting grief for a tragically lost brother. I didn’t get to my “tragic brother material” until I was 34 and wrote a memoir for Harper’s called “The Mickey Mantle Koan,” but the writing of that attempt to restore literary life to my flown brother opened floodgates, and a 650-page “Russian baseball novel” on family, religion, war, baseball, radical politics, and grief-shot love came pouring out. The Brothers K is my favorite of my books so far. Like The River Why, it’s also been a gift that has kept on giving. It’s strange to have done work in my twenties and thirties that continues to do things like send my wife and me to France twice for the French publications of both novels, and paid a lot of our bills, and inspired thousands of fan letters, lots of this more than thirty years later. Actually, it all feels a little backasswards. It’s the man my age who should be supporting the young fella who wrote those books. I still want to send the destitute me who wrote TRW and drove to his beloved rivers on bald retreads with no insurance some dough!

AM: The 20th anniversary edition of The River Why contains some great reflection by you in the afterword. I loved that you started it by recounting your first time falling in love with a novel, understanding the power and potential fiction has to convey “difficult truths.” This line particularly resonated with me: “This light made grief bearable.” 

DJD: My brother John died at 17, when I was 13. My desire to try to become a novelist was born the day that, at age 16, I read scenes in a Thomas Mann novel that infused my grief with that “light that makes grief bearable.” The novel climaxed with the death scene of a frail boy that was so powerful and so healing that I thought: Even if it took me the rest of my life to learn this magic, if I could someday perform such a story for even one person, it would be worth it. My apprenticeship to the light that makes grief beautiful was long. But by damn, I did eventually write some work that inspired readers to write and tell me I’d done something for them akin to what Mann once did for me. 

AM: In that River Why afterward, you went on to talk about your first novel attempt, poking a lot of fun at yourself over how overly serious it was. But despite the initial misfire of “Old Dead Xmas Half-Novel,” you went on to complete The River Why. Like you, I recently had a moment of realizing the novel I’ve spent several months on is not the novel I want to be writing. As someone who had 200 pages “usurped,” do you have any thoughts or advice on how to deal? 

DJD: Let me put this in boldface: You deal by being true to your own nature. “Old Dead Xmas” novel was an attempt to wake America up to the fact that, to quote William Stafford, “the darkness around us is deep.” But so many writers handle that kind of material better than I do. And there was another problem: writing the Great Suburban American Heart of Darkness was a betrayal of the deep “light that makes grief bearable” experience that called me to fiction writing in the first place.

So it’s a very sweet irony that, midway through my wallowing in darkness, “Old Dead Xmas Novel” flew off the rails and I began to write with an entirely new kind of energy about fly fishing and rivers and the spiritual search and romance and the glorious high desert and temperate forest regions I’d known and loved from the day I was born. My initial thought was: “Well, I’ll just spew this fishing crap till it’s out of my system.” But a year later, I had three-hundred pages of comedy that served as the crude first draft of Gus’s life, plus fifty pages of metaphysicated sermons that caused me to birth a scholar/nerd character, Titus Gerard, who helped me discover the usefulness of what Milan Kundera calls “novelistic essays,” where you stop just telling the story for a while and attack the themes of a novel directly, so when you return to the story-telling the reader has a fresh feeling for what is at stake. With that character in the mix, voila! I had a rough draft worth the hard effort of rewriting and condensing and cleaning up and submitting to twenty-five publishers and being rejected twenty-five times!

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Seriously, The River Why material, unlike the “Dead Xmas” material, enabled me to articulate and grow more sensitive to things that had shown me glimmerings of “the light that makes grief bearable” all along: the company of rivers and wilderness; the wisdom of small children; our preposterous attempts to obey Jesus and love the impossible weirdos he so over-optimistically calls simply “thy neighbor.” The same material taught me to make comedy out of things I’d initially experienced as painful, but, after the passage of time and some spiritual effort provided a sense of detachment, I was able to find humorous—and isn’t levity a form of light? Take, for example, how badly politics and religion fuck up the mood at a family supper table. By making the schism between a redneck ranch brat’s murderous bait fishing and her effete British poobah husband’s catch and release fly fishing stand in for politics and religion, readers could laugh at a family’s total dysfunction instead of feeling miserable about their own. Another discovery: I gave Gus the ability to spoof his mother, who speaks what one critic called “a hick patois that makes the Beverly Hillbillies sound like Oxford dons,” and I also gave him the ability to lampoon his snobby British father. But I didn’t give him a strong voice of his own. Only by moving to the Tamanawis River and pursuing his passion did he begin to find his true voice. To show his voice grow authentic at the same time he’s discovering his true vocation and home gave the novel a subliminal music that created strong narrative pull. Another happy discovery: it’s possible to be as funny as you can, with serious intent. Although I was portraying the schismatic personalities that were tearing apart the Orviston home, I still laugh when Bill Bob loses his pet scorpion inside the family house, and Ma shrugs it off, surmising that the little guy “prob’ly found an’ fell in love with one of your old man’s mayfly imitations and died of lover’s nuts trying to figure out how to screw the thing.”

 

AM: Ever since I started writing my first novel, I’ve had a lot of questions for every writer that’s done it before floating around in my head. Namely, How? Like, how the hell did you do it? Why does my novel want me to hate myself? When did you realize this was a terrible decision you’d made? Does anyone actually have an order or method? Is it okay that so much of the “work” I’m doing seems to be just getting to know my characters and world and often takes place in my head while I’m walking my dogs?  

DJD: Of these questions, Amelia, my favorite by far is: “Is it okay that so much of the “work” I’m doing seems to be just getting to know my characters and world and often takes place in my head while I’m walking my dogs?” This is your fiction-making compass pointing to true north. This is the most responsible work a young writer can be doing. Be proud of this good struggle. But you might also want to take a little notebook on your dog walks so that, when the world or your characters try to reveal themselves, you can write it down. Writing is not fly fishing! Catch and release writing leads to zero publications!

As to your question about how novels make us hate ourselves, no shit. Writing shoves our ignorance, failures with language, and artistic limitations in our face every damn day! It’s like the sports aphorism: “Tennis makes you want to kill your opponent. Golf makes you want to kill yourself.” Starting a novel is definitely a form of golf! But some people actually master that preposterous game, and ours, too. And it’s a noble struggle whether we master it or not. I long ago began to see my own writing struggles as a spiritual practice. And a daily dose of self-abnegation, though not self-hatred, is a famously valuable spiritual tool. Like meditation, literary concentration requires an intensely focused imagination, and focused imagination is central to all good work, so what a good thing to be struggling to master through our dreadful practice! 

Here are two depictions of focused imagination that remind me very much of our practice. The first is by Peter Anderson in his book First Church of the Higher Elevations:

 

A wild gait and shortness of breath revealed my lack of mountain experience. Eyes riveted to the pass, I was more interested in the destination than I was in the process of getting there. An older mountaineer took notice and offered some simple yet sage advice. “As the slope gets steeper,” he said, “shorten your steps. When you take a step, take a breath. When you take the next step, let it go.” When I practiced this properly, climbing became a kind of moving stasis and the oxygen coming in fueled a slow steady burn instead of an energy inferno. If I could stay focused I was rewarded with the energy to get to the top of the pass and beyond. It would be a few more years before I would learn to appreciate the stillness in the midst of that motion.

 

Beautiful, huh? And a good writing day can actually feel like that, including the stillness in the midst of the motion. On my best work days, nine hours of effort feel like an hour or two spent playing music with friends.

In the same vein, here’s Per Pettersen describing how to log a big stand of tree-farm timber in his novel Out Stealing Horses:

 

We started in the morning just after seven and kept on till evening when we fell into bed and slept like the dead until we woke with the light and went at it again. For a time it looked as if we’d never get to the end of the trees because when each spruce has to be felled with a crosscut and you begin to count, you can lose heart and feel you’ll never finish. When you’re in the swing, though, and have fallen into a good rhythm, the beginning and end have no meaning at all, not there, not then, and the only vital thing is that you keep going until everything merges into a single pulse that beats and works under its own steam, and you take a break at the right time and you work again, and you eat enough but not too much, and you drink enough but not too much, and sleep well when the time comes; eight hours a night, and at least one hour during the day.

 

AM: Another thing I’ve been struggling with lately is the difference between building characters in short stories versus a novel. Specifically, I’m finding it difficult to manage more than two or three, which is generally all you need in a shorter story. A novel necessitates a long-term, polyamorous relationship! So I’ve become very focused on how novelists handle their characters, especially as the cast grows. How do you navigate this?

DJD: Might your question on how to handle numerous characters boil down to this?: What kind of dreams or urges or obsession or knowledge or unforgettably haunting experiences or, hell yeah, random idiocy, cause a person to give birth to a full-fledged CHARACTER in a novel? And what a great question! And the hard-won, hopefully wonderful answer, of course, is the full-fledged character herself.

Let me also say: your use of the word “polyamorous” is consoling to me. A polyamorous writer, by definition, loves her characters. And so many writers don’t! I struggle with authors who condescend to all their characters in order to be able control them. I like a good foil or pluperfect asshole thickening the plot as much as anybody, but I love writers brave enough to love their characters, defend their idiosyncrasies and blunders, portray people better or smarter than themselves, and paint the amazing dance we’re all in with our own character. Here’s the late great James Hillman: “Some of what I mean by ‘force of character’ is the persistence of the incorrigible anomalies, those traits you can’t fix, can’t hide, and can’t accept. Resolutions, therapy, conversion, the heart’s contrition in old age—nothing prevails against them, not even prayer.” Give a fictitious character some of that incorrigibility and you will mine literary gold. I love authors willing to marvel at people more conscious than themselves, not less, in defiance of the vast confederacy of dunces and haters who get 90% of the news headlines as if the goal of life is to aspire downward. The best humans on our planet remain incredible creatures worthy of our keenest interest and extreme admiration. Why not portray them?

You mention short stories versus novels. I can’t say much about short stories. By force of character, I aspire to write books that feel like long pilgrimages on foot or long walks through amazing cities like Paris or Portland or hundred-mile canoe voyages or long hikes along high mountain ridge lines. By force of character, I’ve walked well over a thousand miles in rivers and streams. Not just alongside them: in them. By force of character, I love the spirit of complexity that fuels novels, love the novel’s defiance of the anti-thought that inspires tweets and sound-bytes. And by force of character or something even deeper, sense of soul, maybe, life itself strikes me as polyamorous, so I feel best when my story gets complex and many-peopled and runs long.

And finally, I feel that life is polyphonous. Multiple-voiced. That’s a big change since TRW. I use several narrators in The Brothers K and even more in my current effort, Sun House. How better to speak the polyamorous truth of being human than via polyphony?

AM: In TRW you spend the first several chapters fleshing out the narrator, Gus, and his crazy, complex parents and their hilarious, contentious history. Then you, via Gus, introduce his brother, and there’s this great line following a very loaded paragraph of Gus listing his brother’s habits and traits: “There. Now everyone knows Bill Bob as well as I do.” I found myself thinking about this line for days. It’s such a great writer’s trick. I’m having a hard time figuring out what my question is here or how I can expect you to offer specifics on a line in 25-year old novel, so I’ll shoot you a few options, including just responding to my thoughts on the line. How did you do so much with so little? How do you balance your unapologetically full, lyrical language (I love when you say you were born without a minimalist bone in your body) with this sort of simplicity? Can you teach me?

DJD: I have two responses to these questions.

First response: I’ve always loved holy fools, in mythology, in folk tales, in literature from King Lear’s fool and Huck Finn to Mockingbird’s Boo Radley. Bill Bob was my first attempt at a holy fool. He’s immune to the family obsession with fish, so their strife doesn’t touch him. He is so simple, yet he loves to do six or seven things at once. He has an amazing bedtime spiritual practice of speaking in language similar to myth, or the best speeches of Socrates, as he falls to sleep. Bill Bob, to me, really is a fool and really is holy. I have a 13-years-younger brother and took care of him and lots of other kids when I was young, and sometimes they said and did the most incredible things. If you’re ever in such a situation, Amelia, remember: pull out a little notebook and capture some of that stuff!

My second response is to your question about getting power into short sentences, though you prefer lyrical language most of the time: there comes a point in most any long narrative where things start happening fast and dramatically. I find that the greater the drama and faster the action, the greater the need for terse and very precise language. Lyricism kills a description of a tragic event unless you’re spoofing the whole affair. But the tension between the two kinds of prose—lyrical and terse—can be a very powerful tool if you become aware of, and judiciously vary, your prose rhythms.

Norman Maclean had four axioms for prose writers: 

1. All prose should be rhythmical. 

2. The rhythms should be barely perceptible. 

3. The rhythms should become noticeable at times, however, as when the author is “fooling around and showing off.” 

4. “If an author writes out of a full heart and rhythms don’t come with it then something is missing inside the author. Perhaps a full heart.”

Notice how Axiom #4 illustrates the very topic Norman is addressing? Listen again: If an author writes out of a full heart and rhythms don’t come with it then something is missing inside the author. Perhaps a full heart. Almost anybody but Maclean would place a breathing point in the first sentence by sticking a comma after the word “it.” But Norman doesn’t want that! By leaving the sentence commaless, he gives it the odd, floaty flight of a butterfly. At its worst, oddity distracts. But at its best it can mesmerize and disarm us. For me, this is “Muhammad Ali prose.” Ali said, “I float like a butterfly but sting like a bee.” Norman’s commaless advice flitters and floats the same way, then his five-syllable fragment stings us—especially if we realize we lack “a full heart.”

Here’s a full-hearted passage where Norman does his rhythm thing: 

 

In the middle of the river was a rock iceberg, just its tip exposed above water and underneath it a rock house. It met all the residential requirements for big fish—powerful water carrying food to the front and back doors, and rest and shade behind them. My father said, “There has to be a big one out there.”

I said, “A little one couldn’t live out there.”

My father said, “The big one wouldn’t let it.”

 

Two long floaty sentences, then Maclean confines his speakers to three short ones beginning, “My father said...”  “I said...”  “My father said...” 

What he is creating, knowingly as a lifelong student of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, The Book of Common Prayer, is litany. Why? To let you know you’re entering the realm of the incantatory; realm of the Inexpressible; realm of what Norman regards as holy. The brother about to embody this holiness, brother about to be resurrected, brother who, among his admirable qualities, was also an alcoholic gambling addict who was found beaten to death in a back alley almost half a century before Norman was able to write of that loss at all. But skilled rhythmic prose doesn’t care how long Paul Maclean had been gone. It resurrects when and whom it pleases. Listen: 

 

My father could tell by the width of Paul’s chest that he was going to let the next loop sail. It couldn’t get any wider. “I wanted to fish out there,” he said, “but I couldn’t cast that far.”

Paul’s body pivoted as if he were going to drive a golf ball three hundred yards, and his arm went high into the great arc and the tip of his wand bent like a spring, and then everything sprang and sang. 

 

Read that sentence six times and you’ll learn something great about the difficult conjunction, “and.” Read it six more times, messing with the placement of its commas, and you’ll feel how breathing enhances meaning. Inhalations and exhalations are, along with our pulse, rhythms injected in us by the powers of creation from our birth till our death, and the comma—our punctuation mark asking for a beat of silence between sounds, shows us when and how to breathe, and almost how to eat what we read. Read it again to yourself, exaggerating your inbreaths as you reach the commas:

 

Paul’s body pivoted as if he were going to drive a golf ball three hundred yards [inbreath], and his arm went high into the great arc and the tip of his wand bent like a spring [inbreath], and then everything sprang and sang. 

Suddenly, there was an end of action. The man was immobile. There was no bend, no power in the wand. It pointed at ten o’clock and ten o’clock pointed at the rock. For a moment the man looked like a teacher with a pointer illustrating something about a rock to a rock. Only water moved... 

 

Deliberate incantation, invoking the Invisible in the form of a merely imagined teacher pointing; invoking the Unseen again in just three spirit-of-God-moving-over the face-of the water words: Only. Water. Moved. Now Norman is as ready as Muhammad Ali ever was to clock us, especially those of us who’ve lost close loved ones, and love the beauty of rivers, and the beauty of great departed fishermen merged with them:

 

For a moment the man looked like a teacher with a pointer illustrating something about a rock to a rock. Only water moved... 

Somewhere above the top of the rock house a fly was swept in water so powerful only a big fish could be there to see it. Then the universe stepped on its third rail. The wand jumped convulsively as it made contact with the magic current of the world. The wand tried to jump out of the man’s right hand. His left hand seemed to be frantically waving goodbye to a fish, but actually was trying to throw enough line into the rod to reduce the voltage and ease the shock of what had struck. . . 

Everything seemed electrically charged but electrically unconnected. Electrical sparks appeared here and there on the river. A fish jumped so far downstream that it seemed outside the man’s electrical field, but, when the fish had jumped, the man had leaned back on the wand and the fish reentered the water not altogether under its own power, the wand recharged with convulsions, the man’s hand waving frantically at another departure, and much farther below a fish jumped again. Because of the connections, it became the same fish. . . 

 

“Waving frantically at another departure.” I feel these words saying: Goodbye Norman’s brother, Paul. Goodbye my brother, John. Yet my body recharges with convulsions as, much farther below, an enormous trout and two long gone brothers somehow reappear, and “because of the connections,” all three live in the spirit of God that moves over the face of Norman’s beloved waters. Rhythm-aware writing like this offers constant counterpoint to every word, giving us a second melody (that’s what counterpoint means), telling two stories at once, one entering our imagination via imagery, the other entering our bodies, hearts, lungs, via rhythm. 

Zounds! Talk about a power tool! Eat your hearts out, Black and Decker and Milwaukie Electric.

AM: Can you talk about your new novel? You told me you were in the “final throes.” What would that be in fly fishing terms?

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DJD: The only way I can speak of my new novel, Sun House, at this late stage in its progress through the birth canal is “in fly fishing terms”: beaching a big wild salmon or steelhead is the most dangerous moment of the entire struggle. When we coax them close to shore and their bellies first feel that stone cobble, they get a last burst of energy, inspiring a last run for deeper water and, if that fails, the wildest of thrashing. With Sun House I’ve been enduring that thrashing for months. It was wearing me out. But I have a famous and skilled editor, Michael by name, who has edited Donna Tart, David Foster Wallace, and other writers who are marathoners by nature. You could say that Michael is the fishing equivalent of a legendary Scottish ghillie or Montana fly fishing guide. Battling my novel’s late thrashing, I wrote to Michael three weeks ago, begging him to enter 100% into my polyamorous, polyphonous, thirteen-year thousand-page effort with me and stand ready with his net so that, if my line breaks, he can sweep the net in under the novel before it can escape. I’m happy to say he is now doing that. Being able to discuss the late details freely with a brilliant literary and editorial mind and heart is giving me an enormous lift.

AM: This might be a bit too heavy, but sometimes the speed and degree of chaos in the world makes me question the notion that art can save or redeem us. Do you still believe in the power of fiction? 

DJD: In times like ours, heavy is true and necessary.

I believe a great story told with power and love, a great poem or novel, a great wisdom text, a beautifully told and timely myth, a spontaneous cry from the heart, is not only the greatest force for change in humans, it is the only way the ancient devas, genius loci, secret agents of the Unseen, unknown heroes and heroines, can penetrate the stupendous noise of the trillionfold Tower of Babel so innocently called “the internet” and speak to us. 

The Holy Fool in Sun House says this late in the story: “Mother Earth is dying, and she is giving birth, both at once. Both at once, even as so many work to kill her. So even though I’m almost helpless against her killers, I’m trying nonstop, with more attention than I’ve ever given to anything, to tend our dying Mother’s failing body, and listen to her labor moans and last whispered wisdom words, in the hope that I can help find, and catch, and love, and help raise the infant world she is delivering into our care as if not only the infant’s life, but all life, depends on it. Because it does.”

If I had more time I’d demonstrate how, despite the profound gravity of this view, a true Holy Fool does not surrender his sense of humor. I’d love to die while cracking a good joke at the same time I was planting a tree. In times like these, we’ve got to be prepared to show the powers that be that we refuse to kiss the rancid ass of despair. How better than by serving the forces of humor, forests, and hope?

 

AM: You were teasing me a bit the other day about your top-secret workshop in which participants produce novels while sleeping, but I think this was the advice you really wanted me to hear (and not just because you bolded it): write an awake novel

I love that. Can you tell me what it means?

DJD: I can if you’ll let me steal from the sage and great myth-teller of Devonshire, England, Martin Shaw. (And you can find some of his best work in Emergencethe excellent new online magazine, for free! Emergence. Check it out.)

How can we write an awake novel, or any other story form: Martin Shaw: 

“If you trap a story, you’ve put it in a little allegorical cage where you pretend you know what it means. The moment you think you know what the story means from beginning to end, it’s lost its nutrition, it’s lost its protein, it’s lost its danger...

“Because I’m a storyteller and a writer, people are always saying to me, Can you find us a story so we can make this point? We wanna make a point about climate change. We wanna make a point about gender. Will you send us something over that supports it? Now that’s backwards to me. Story is first. You have to be in the presence of the story, which I regard as a living being: it’s a wild animal; it’s got tusks, udders; it’s got a tail; it doesn’t behave; half the time you want it to be there it’s disappeared, it’s shuffled off somewhere else. Stories should be filled with so much consequence and danger, they won’t behave for your polemic... Old myths are not necessarily always coming from a human point of view at all. They are a multiplicity. “

Which returns us, Amelia, to your excellent word: polyamorous.

AM: Last question: How do you know when you’ve redeemed the life of the tree?

DJD: For me, it happens when a wonderfully sincere stranger, or a dear and trusted friend like my recently flown Irish brother, Brian Doyle, reads what you’ve done and sends you a comment like this:

Dear Scottish,

I been saving your scoops of novel for an hour when I could be alone, serene, alert, and ready—out of respect for the author and the work. Found that hour yesterday in Bellingham on a sunny deck and read through the chapters twice. Wow. Whew. Top of your game. I am instantly drawn into the life of the characters, instantly cared about them, instantly sensed their good and bad and honest and greedy and cool and troubled—was also delighted at the craft with which you infused spiritual pursuit and learning into the very being of the people, so that the former was not speech lecture homily but part and parcel of who they are and their roads and paths and struggle toward cracks of light. Most of all I think I was so slurped into the people and their lives that I finished with a little startle—o, right, Bellingham!—which seems like an enormous kudo to the mind that made those sentences. Very impressed with the depth and passion and genuine of the story, with the peopleness of the people. Thanks, man.

Amelia. Thanks man. Wonderful questions. And best of luck, MFA crew and aspiring fictioneers everywhere, with your own pages and their trees’ redemptions.


David James Duncan is the author of the novels The River Why and The Brothers K, and several collections of stories and essays. His work has won the Western States Book Award, three Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Awards, a Lannan fellowship, and other honors, and has appeared in fifty plus anthologies including Best American Sports Writing, Best American Essays (twice), and Best American Spiritual Writing (six times). David is wrapping up a novel called Sun House, to be published by Little, Brown, which fuses his loves for acoustic folk and blues, world wisdom traditions, and the mountains, river valleys, critters and free-range humans of the American West. 

Amelia Morand grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Before coming to Montana, she completed her BS in Economics at Portland State University where she was awarded the Tom and Phyllis Burnham Scholarship for fiction. She recently received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's 2018 Short Story Award for New Writers, and her work is forthcoming on apt.


CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Callan Wink

Talking shop with Callan Wink

by Nicole Rose Gomez

Callan Wink  is the author of  Dog Run Moon: Stories  and the novel,  August  (Dial Press/Random House, Spring '20)

Callan Wink is the author of Dog Run Moon: Stories and the novel, August (Dial Press/Random House, Spring '20)

I first came across Callan Wink’s work in the fall semester of my MFA at the University of Montana, in a class on character development in which we analyzed his short story, “A Refugee Crisis” (The New Yorker, 2018). Now on campus as the William Kittredge Visiting Writer and my instructor for a Special Topics Creative Writing class that explores the world of work for inspiration, Callan Wink sat down with me in his office last Wednesday to discuss stripping away the artifice from fiction, the daily grind of writing and the struggle to keep the spark alive, the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and his new novel, August, due out in spring 2020. 


Nicole Gomez: You’re from Michigan originally right? How did you end up in Montana?

Callan Wink: The first time I came to Montana I got a job on a dude ranch when I was 19 years old, working as a fishing guide. I was there for the summer and I kind of never left. I ended up coming to school in Bozeman at Montana State for undergrad. I took time off and fishing guided, worked a bunch of weird jobs, construction mostly. But that’s how I ended up in Montana, for fishing. 

NG: Did you grow up fishing?

CW: Yeah. I grew up in northern Michigan in a tiny town out in the woods, nothing there. I spent a lot of time outdoors. No TV in my house as a kid. 

 

NG: I want to get back to that, but first, fishing is a big part of your life—you’re a fly-fishing guide for part of the year. Who was it that taught you how to fish?
CW: My mom took me fishing a lot when I was a kid, before I learned how to drive. My dad was never that much into fishing. I learned a lot from books, believe it or not. Fly-fishing is what I do, and I didn’t know anyone that did that. It’s interactive– you’re always doing something, even if you’re not catching anything. Where I’m at with it now is that it’s a good excuse for me to go outside and mess around and be in a river. The fishing side of it is fun, but it’s more about the broader experience for me. 

 

NG: Tell me more about this childhood without television. 

CW: My mother was a school teacher and when I was young, and she thought that TVs were rotting the brains of her students. 

 

NG: Sounds like my mom.

CW: I think it was one of the best things my parents ever did for me, actually, because I read a ton. I would go to the local library, especially in the summer when we were out of school, and get a stack of these really horrible western novels. I wasn’t reading the classics or anything, but I was consuming a lot of narratives, and I guess if I have any writerly skill it’s because of how much narrative I’ve ingested, of all kinds. When I started writing it’s like I had that foundation without even having to think about it. 

 

NG: Was it also your mom that got you reading?

CW: Actually my dad probably reads more than anyone I know, but they’re both big readers. My whole family is, even my extended family. For Christmas, we always gave books, things like that. 

“Where I was raised, it’s very working class and people are practical that way. Trying to make money in a creative way is not something that there was a model for.” 

 

NG: Do you remember a formative book from your childhood?

CW: I was a big re-reader of books. I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was ten or so, maybe a little younger, probably about ten times. Roald Dahl is a hell of a writer. As I got a little older, I did the Hemingway Nick Adams Stories, which are set in Michigan, and that was cool to read a Michigan writer because I could understand the places he was writing about. Jim Harrison for the same reason. He was another Michigan guy.

 

NG: Is it strange for you now to have your family read your work?

CW: They’re really supportive, but sometimes if I veer into a more biographical stuff, it’s a little uncomfortable. But for the most part it’s good. I think it’s important when you’re first getting going to hide it away, though. I didn’t tell people I was writing much until I got into grad school—then people wanted to know what I was doing there. But it wasn’t something I was readily sharing at first.

 

NG: Did you know you always wanted to be a writer? 

CW: Not really. My dad worked construction, my mom was a teacher. I was writing from a very young age, but I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know that was something you could do. And if you’re a young person and you tell someone you want to be a writer, you’re immediately confronted with the question of what you’re going to do for money. Where I was raised, it’s very working class and people are practical that way. Trying to make money in a creative way is not something that there was a model for. 

 

NG: What did you start out writing about? What interested you at first?

CW: I wrote poetry until I was twenty-four or twenty-five. It wasn’t very good. Most of my poems were stories I was too lazy to write. I wrote a lot about work, especially construction, which is what I did for most of my early twenties aside from fishing guiding. I wrote poems about working with my dad on these construction sites, and then at a certain point I turned a couple of those into stories.


NG: Was there ever a sort of watershed moment for you when your work took a big leap forward?

CW: That’s one thing in the Saunders’ essay [“Process and Spirit”, The Writer’s Chronicle, 2018] that we read in class that really resonated with me, because we like to think there’s a slow progression, that you just gradually get better at writing, and that’s true to an extent. But I feel like there are points where you take this great leap ahead, and for me that happened when I was in grad school. I was writing a certain type of story before I got to the MFA, and I got some of these early stories out of my head in my first year. Then I wrote the title story of Dog Run Moon that was in The New Yorker, and at that point I had this baseline of what I wanted my stories to be like. I still write a lot of bad stories, but at least I can recognize them as the bad ones and then either try to fix them or abandon them. So maybe it was more like how Saunders could recognize his own particular area of ability and then dwell in that zone instead of trying to write like other people. 

 

NG: So did you have your version of Saunders’ “Hemingway boner”?

CW: I was probably more of a Cormac McCarthy impersonator as a young writer. I went through a big period of Cormac McCarthy that lasted through grad school. That was probably my version of the Hemingway boner—the Cormac McCarthy boner, which I’ve just gotten over in the past four or five years. 

 

NG: You had your first publication in CutBank right? [For “Wolf Goes Down for a Cup”]

CW: My first fiction publication.

 

NG: Where were you at when you wrote that one?

CW: I wrote it right before I went to grad school and then it got published during my first year.

 

NG: How would you say your writing and interests have evolved since?

CW: I’m less interested in really nice descriptions. That is what I was interested in at that time, in lyricism and novel metaphors, in the way things sounded. Now I’m more interested in what the story is about, in meaning. I read a couple of the Rachel Cusk books and I couldn’t get them out of my head—I was like, you can do that as a writer? I wrote “A Refugee Crisis” after reading that novel [Outline] and I think that’s the way my writing is going right now, that’s what interests me a lot: unabashedly having more of myself in the story as some way to approach honesty in writing, as opposed to just pretending that everything is fiction. I love fiction and I used to love purely entertaining stories, which I think Dog Run Moon mostly is, but now I’m increasingly interested in the creation of a more personal narrative, one that draws heavily on my own understanding of the world and doesn’t try to hide that fact by calling a character “Dale” if he is mostly me. I’m interested in stripping away that artifice that’s there for no other reason than to distance the writer from the story. I think that raises the stakes for the writer. Personal stakes are almost zero for me in stories like the ones in Dog Run Moon, and I’m interested in ones where the stakes are higher. That’s what’s exciting me about writing right now. That’s one of the beautiful things about what we’re doing. If you put the label fiction on it, it can contain all sorts of truths and mistruths, untruths—it’s a freeing mode to write in because when it comes down to it, most of us are writing as a way to figure out our own stuff. It’s cool if someone else reads it, but ultimately writing is a process of self-examination, making sense of your own experience. 

 

NG: In “A Refugee Crisis”, which is a meditation on honesty and truth, I was wondering if you were suggesting something about the invented nature of borders, how as arbitrary lines drawn in the sand they create refugees and immigrants, and I wonder how you apply that to current events, the fight over a border wall and a migrant caravan, etcetera. 

CW: It does seem to be so arbitrary, the concept of borders. Just the fact of entitlement, that certain people have the ability to move around. How simple movement around the world in this global society is a right that some people seem to have more of than others.  But it’s not something I was specifically getting after in the story, although the upwelling of culture and current issues is going to appear in your writing whether you mean for it to or not. 

Another thing that story is concerned with is that there are so many injustices in the world and there have been since time began, and how much do you concern your writing with that? To what extent does your writing need to be about current injustices or is there some way you can reach some greater, more universal discussion of injustice? These aren’t things I have answers for. Or if we’re actually concerned with these issues, is writing some little short story about it the way to create any change?

NG: And is that your responsibility as a writer, or is that the purview of journalism?

CW: Exactly. And I go back and forth on all of these things. 

“When it comes down to it, most of us are writing as a way to figure out our own stuff. It’s cool if someone else reads it, but ultimately writing is a process of self-examination, making sense of your own experience.”  

 

NG: The west and rural areas feature strongly in your writing. Do you feel that there’s an added value to writing about a particular place? 

CW: I’m not super imaginative in that I can’t write convincingly about places I haven’t spent a lot of time. I’m kind of bound to set my stories in places I have a good working knowledge of. Maybe that will change at some point, but I can write about Michigan well, Montana because I have been here for a long time. I’ve been trying to write some stories about California because I’ve been spending more and more time there over the past five years, but I haven’t done that successfully yet, although I think I’m close. I’m interested in it, because I’m getting sick of describing the mountains. In my book [Dog Run Moon] I did it a lot and now I’m kind of bored with it. Having a new environment to talk about is interesting to me. 

 

NG: The last story in Dog Run Moon, “Hindsight”, was written from the female perspective, but that collection came out in 2016. A lot has happened in the past few years. Given the current cultural climate and as a male writer in 2019, do you feel an uptick in pressure to represent additional perspectives in your writing, particularly with regards to gender, and how do you negotiate that?

CW: There’s no way to keep what’s going on in society out of your writing. “A Refugee Crisis” is me grappling with this very issue. It’s me responding in my own way to my previous stuff and thinking about how to go ahead with new things. But I’m probably going to continue to write fiction that is concerned with the male experience in the world because I feel like that’s a valid perspective.

 

NG: Can you talk a little about your new novel, August?

CW: It follows the characters of one of my stories from Dog Run Moon, which was part of a broader narrative. It’s a coming-of-age story that follows the boy August from young age to early twenties. It follows the timeline of my own growing up, the era it’s set it, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in certain parts of rural Michigan.

 

NG: What was it like in parts of rural Michigan after 9/11?

CW: Right after the attacks there were friends of mine joining the military, some of them dying. That sort of thing is part of the book. It’s also a book concerned with how to become a man and doing it badly. The term “toxic masculinity” will no doubt be thrown around in discussion of this book. But for me it’s a pretty real representation of a certain time and place that happens to be one that I grew up in, and a character who is trying to find his way out of that. 

 

NG: I look forward to reading it. I started college in September 2001, just weeks after 9/11, and it colored absolutely everything around me. I got my first cell phone because I was leaving to college and war was starting. That’s part of why I studied political science, because when I got to college the whole world was in an uproar about counterterrorism and the rise of non-state actors. It was a fascinating and frightening time, especially for a young person. 

CW: I remember the day it happened. I played football in high school and we were supposed to have football practice that day, and our coach called us in after school. We’d found out about it in the morning and had spent the whole day in class watching the news, and our coach called us in, cancelled practice, and was like, “This is gonna be your guys’ Vietnam. They’re probably gonna bring back the draft, some of you guys are gonna go,” and we were all like seventeen, eighteen year-old kids, like oh fuck, what’s gonna happen? I remember that feeling pretty vividly, and it’s a scene in the novel.

 

NG: What was the jump like from writing short stories to novels?

CW: For me it was hard. Part of it is my personality. I get bored with long projects, I like seeing an end in sight and having it be achievable. I like beginnings and endings. With a novel you feel like you’re shackled to it for so long and then you have these periods where you think, this isn’t any good. If it were a short story you could just start something new, but with a novel you have to stick it out. It gets a little dismal. That being said, there are some nice things about it. Something I did enjoy was having this on-going project; normally when I’m in short-story mode I’m always thinking of short-story ideas and how I can form stories around things I read or see or hear, but when you’re at work on a novel, you already have the story you’re working on and you can just pull things you come across and plug them into to what you’re working on, even if they wouldn’t have been enough to hold up a whole story. I have noticed that once I go into novel mode, short stories I try to write just keep turning into novels too. Once you get used to it, it’s hard to stop. 

 

NG: How long did it take you to complete the novel?

CW: It’s kind of hard to say. I started writing a long time ago when I wrote that story, and I wrote three or four other stories that had the same character and then I realized, “this is probably a novel.” But from when I first considered it to be a novel to where I am now, which is sending it to the copy editor, two and a half years, I guess. Some people take a lot longer than that, but I figured this out pretty early: I would rather have a greater body of work and have some of them be not very good than have just three really good stories. I like output, I like producing. 

 

NG: You said you’re at work on a new novel.

CW: I always have a number of different things going on. This one I’m very early on in. I’ll show up in this one a lot more directly. I’m in the one I’ve finished as well, but in the traditional fiction model where we write about a character that’s our proxy, and in the one I’m working on now that’s done away with. 

 

NG: How does it feel to have achieved success relatively young? Do you feel any kind of pressure on what you do next and how do you manage that? Where would you like to see your career go?

CW: The good thing about writing literary fiction is that very few people really care about it, which is a good thing to keep in mind. It occupies such a small niche of an already shrinking sector of human consciousness. I mean, the number of people reading the sorts of things that you and I are writing is small and shrinking, which you can get depressed about or you can view as kind of liberating—like, I don’t have to worry that much about making a career as a writer, because what does that even mean these days? I don’t know. Most of the time I still tell people I’m a fishing guide. 

I had this conversation with Tom McGuane, who’s a really great short story writer. I interviewed him, took him fishing, and he said he loves short stories. And I said you can’t make any money writing short stories, and he said you can’t make any money at all writing the stuff we write. He loves short stories because he feels they are this true distillation of the heart of fiction writing, because they are almost divorced from any ability to generate income. You don’t have to tailor your short story to some sort of perceived audience because there is none. They’re like a purer form of the art. And it is kind of true—they’re more like poetry in that way. And I would say you could expand that to include all literary fiction. If you’re writing your novel and career is something you’re thinking about, then yikes. There’s a lot of other ways you can make money that require less effort. 

 

NG: It’s got to be for the love of it, right?

CW: It really does. 

 

NG: So what keeps you sitting down at the computer?

CW: I definitely have periods of time where I’m less interested than others. Occasionally I still get excited about what I’m writing. I remember when I was in grad school, I got that feeling way more often, and I think that’s because it was new, I was spending so much time on it for the first time in my life. I remember being really excited about the stuff I was writing—some of the stories in Dog Run Moon I wrote in grad school. Now I think much of my writing is an attempt to recapture some of that initial excitement that I don’t often feel anymore. Sometimes that bums me out, that writing isn’t as exciting as it once was. You could compare it to a relationship: that initial burst of feeling you have for this other person when you first meet and it’s very exciting and fresh, and then that’s done and you’re in this other place where it’s maybe deeper—

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NG: But there’s the daily slog. The daily, unglamorous housekeeping of sitting down at the desk.

CW: Exactly. And you miss that excitement, but you still get glimpses of it occasionally. 

 

NG: When it’s flowing. 

CW: Yeah.

 

NG: So what is your process? Are you a morning writer, a night writer?

CW: I used to always write from the middle of the afternoon until it got dark. I can’t write when it’s dark out, I just can’t. That’s always been my best period, when I’m the smartest, when I’m the most athletic, able to go running or surfing, from 2:00-4:00. When I was in grad school, I would write later on because I was really enflamed by it and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Now at about five I want a cocktail or I want to go to yoga or do something different. 

 

NG: I want to ask you about being at Stanford University for the Wallace Stegner Fellowship. 

CW: It was a great experience. The other writers there were extremely impressive. The level of dialogue about stories in our workshop was phenomenal, and reading their work—some of them are going to be household names. It was amazing, and humbling, to see what they were coming in with. And the faculty, too. Adam Johnson was maybe the best workshop leader I’ve ever worked with. He’s won every writing prize you can win and yet he’s still really generous with his time, his teaching. He’s one of those people who loves narrative and literature and talking about stories, it’s a true passion of his, what he does. It was really inspiring to be around people like that. 

 

NG: How was the move from Montana out to Silicon Valley?

CW: I’d never been there before. I thought I was going to live on this houseboat out in Redwood City. It seemed like a cool thing when I found it on Craigslist. It turned out to be not so cool. Then I just started driving south, and I had a friend from Livingston who grew up in Santa Cruz and he told me to check it out. And I was like, yeah, this is a real place I could live. It’s really cool, it’s kind of weird. Like a lot of places, it’s going through an identity shift—it’s about to be something different than it is now because there’s so much wealth encroaching, but for now it’s still got its grittiness. There’s this surfing culture there I really liked. It reminded me of the fishing culture out in Livingston. There’s a similar vibe, where people’s main concern is not just employment, getting ahead financially and monetarily, like it is in a lot of places. In Santa Cruz it’s about surfing, and where I live in Montana it’s about outdoor recreation. I understood that and I liked it. 

 

NG: Are there any writing lessons that you absorbed from either your MFA or your time at Stanford that you want to pass on to your students or other writers? 

CW: The one bit of writing advice that I always liked and I always give out—I think I put it on the syllabus for my undergraduates—Isak Dinesen said you should write a little bit each day without hope and without despair. That made sense to me: not getting too excited about it, not getting too down about it when it’s not going well. Just trying to do a little bit every day.  

 

NG: One final question. In this program there’s a decent amount of human drama, and the idea was floated that it’s because everyone is approaching things with a narrative mindset, constantly writing stories in their heads about what is happening on a daily basis. Do you feel like you look at the world around you through a narrative lens?

CW: Yeah, absolutely. That’s how you make sense of what happens to you right? After the fact, you make the story out of it. If you’re at an MFA for writing, you’re a sensitive person, open to human possibility, and your mind is working at a certain level. I don’t see how it could be any other way.


Callan Wink is the author of Dog Run Moon: Stories and the novel, August (Dial Press/Random House, Spring '20).  He has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow. His stories and essays appear widely, including in The New YorkerGrantaPlayboyMen’s Journal and The Best American Short Stories Anthology. In the warm months he lives in Livingston, Montana where he is a fly fishing guide on the Yellowstone River. In the winter he surfs in Santa Cruz, California.

Nicole Gomez is a writer from El Paso, Texas and Granada, Spain. She received her B.A. in International Relations from Stanford University, worked as a reporter and columnist at The El Paso Times and is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana. She is a teacher with Free Verse and is Managing Editor of CutBank Online

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: David Allan Cates

The Black Helicopters Above Us: A Conversation with David Allan Cates

by Kylie M. Westerlind

David Allan Cates  is the author of  Hunger In America ,  X Out Of Wonderland ,  Freeman Walker ,  Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home  and  Tom Connor’s Gift .

David Allan Cates is the author of Hunger In America, X Out Of Wonderland, Freeman Walker, Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home and Tom Connor’s Gift.

It’s 1:00pm on a Monday in Missoula, Montana. I sit down with local writer David Allan Cates at the Buttercup Café. He orders a cup of soup, and I sip some herbal tea. He informs me that fifteen minutes ago he was in his garage with the writer, and his good friend for decades, Pete Fromm. They were dressing deer they hunted over the weekend. Over the next hour, we discuss his writing life among many other things, like the idea of not naming puppies, the writing demons that plague us, dreading the approach of black helicopters, the fight against becoming sad and disappointed old people, and the constant self-doubt that comes with wanting to be a writer. 


Kylie M. Westerlind: You know Kevin Canty? 

David Allan Cates: Oh, yeah! (crunches on mini baguette)

KMW: He’s big on getting us to resist writing just a singular character. And I’m wondering what your response to that is—because much of Tom Connor’s Giftis Janine, alone, in a cabin, reflecting…

DAC: Pathetic!

 

KMW: (laughter) No, I think it’s—I write a lot about women in their aloneness, with that aloneness, and I think that’s what struck me about your novel—I think that’s what made the prose read as so female to me, was the reflection there, being alone in and outside the body. But we are stuck with a singular character for much of the story—what’s your response to that? Should we resist those narratives?

DAC: (puts down soup spoon with a clatter) It’s such good advice! As a teacher I’ve given that advice a lot of times. What happens in the story? If someone sits at a café table and thinks…? No, it’s gotta be more than that. So, I know that—I’m trying something that is hard. I know I’m walking a tightrope. (picks up soup spoon) Two things: I wrote a present tense, third-person novel that takes place in one night, but a lot of it was a guy in his cab. He’s the main character. There were others, but they come and go in the novel. But I knew the only way you could have a reader stay with a guy in a cab was if he had an interesting mind. That’s the first thing. (spoons soup onto the mini baguette (I’ve never seen someone eat soup this way)) He better have an interesting mind, and not only that, but, second thing, what’s at stake must be clear. We will follow somebody through a lot of inaction if there’s something clear at stake. If I’m standing at the edge of a cliff having thoughts—you’re going to be interested in my thoughts. Right? Will I jump? Will I do it? Janine was so out there, in an unsustainable place—

 

KMW: And she can’t leave. The physical threat isn’t as much as the emotional threat, at least for me. I didn’t care as much about the bear, it served as that underlying threat. More so, what are the emotional threats out there that keep her in the cabin?

DAC: Right, and also, she’s just not quite right. She’s not okay. And so, is she going to be okay? I know she can’t stay in this cabin forever. What will take her out of it? That’s the setup from the beginning. She’s in extremis, and so the more somebody is in extremis, the more patient we are to wait for something to happen. I remember there’s a part in that book where there’s a knock on the door, when the man brings the puppy back. I remember writing the chapter before that, thinking that somebody has to come here. I just wrote there’s a knock on the door.

 

KMW: (laughter) “Someone knocks on the door!”

DAC: I had to! I took her being the singular character as far as I could, as far as I was capable, before there had to be a knock on the door, and boom, there’s another person in the story. Not an important one, but another person. It’s a tricky thing to write a book in which there’s a lot going on in the mind of the character and not that much for the exterior of a character. So easy to get wrong. But it’s worth trying. There are rules about having a singular character, and they have to show a clear predicament of the character, making the reader more patient to sit with nothing for a while.

 

KMW: I love that. The more extreme the character’s mind, the more patient we are to sit with the character and unravel their mind. So, more from a craft perspective—can you describe your writing process for starting this novel? How long did you spend in that cabin that sparked the novel? 

DAC: That was about breaking an inertia that I had going on in my life. As you know, writing is hard. It’s like, why the hell should I do it today? I knew I had to get started on another novel, and I had an idea about a long love, a love that spans decades. I thought I’ll go away to this friend’s cabin and I have to come back with a first chapter. I could have done it at home, but in those weeks it hadn’t happened. I knew if I went away, I had to come back with something or else I’d feel like a total shit.

KMW: (laughter) And, I have nothing!

DAC: Could you imagine? Going away for a week, and nothing! But so, I came back with a first chapter of a widowed doctor out at a cabin, and I knew there would be a bear outside, that she would have a puppy dog inside. I knew that there was more than just the relationship with her husband. I had lost a friend in a similar way that she lost Tom Connor—suicide. The book became more than I thought it would be. She was in an extreme position—one that wouldn’t last. I’d set up the dramatic questions: is she going to go home or not? Is she going to be okay or not? Is the bear going to get her or not? Just clear, basic, and uncomplicated questions. I knew I had a novel. I didn’t know what it would turn out to be. I didn’t know it would be about grief as much as it was. That cabin experience broke my inertia. I came back with something. I remember writing for about six months, and I was writing about anything that occurred to me. About six months into it, I told myself to stop fucking around. I knew where this book had to go. I was screwing around by writing a few hundred words a day about this or that, and I was avoiding telling the story. From that first chapter, I had to push and tell the story. I had a very intense four to five months after that telling the story, finishing the draft. It took a full year to get a draft. It was a better book, well, bigger, than I thought it would be. 

“I don’t want to be a person whose losses have reduced them. I want my losses to expand me.”

 

KMW: So, you spent about a week out there and wrote a chapter?

DAC: Yeah.

 

KMW: Was it hard, once you were back to the “real world,” to bring your writing self back to that head space? 

DAC: No, no. 

 

KMW: You found that voice. Her voice.

DAC: I found her voice. And that voice really scared me. I anticipated a lot of the feelings people have about men writing a woman’s voice. People, first of all, just saying, “Wow, you made her sound like a woman!” Or women who come up to me and say, “You know, a woman would never do that, they would never not name a puppy.” Ah! “A woman would never do this, she wouldn’t be able to look at a bear and tell it’s female.” What? Why did these things bother them?

 

KMW: It’s hypocritical because we’re incongruent as humans—

DAC: Right.

 

KMW: And so, when readers find incongruities about characters then they latch onto them as universally untrue, like they’re exposing something.

DAC: And they try to convince me—“me or none of my friends would never not name a puppy.”

 

KMW: My cousins never named their cat, and they’ve had it for years. They call it all sorts of things.

DAC: I ran that manuscript by women ER docs, women friends who are good readers, and I didn’t get those sorts of complaints about Janine’s voice. Because you can, you can fuck it up and write something really dumb, and there are readers out there who tell me they can’t wait to read a man writing a woman’s point of view because they’re waiting to see him fuck it up. I knew I set up a high hurdle—always asking myself, why did I do this? So I was cringing a bit at where I was, but I did it. I knew I set myself up, and I was afraid. But I didn’t feel like I wasn’t capable of imagining any character I wanted to. I wasn’t trying to write aboutwomen. I was writing Janine McCarthy. I knew I could do that. My publishing history has been one of decline—not because my books have gotten worse but because my publishers have gotten worse. I wanted to write something that would gain me readers after that decline. This book didn’t really do that, but this was part of my worry…it’s hard enough to keep your head above the water in this business anyway and now I’m writing a voice like this, but it’s really a small thing in the course of writing. You have that thought for a little bit, but you just—

 

KMW: Trust it.

DAC: Right. There’s a million reasons, or demons, that burden a writer.

 

KMW: I’ve definitely had an experience in my short writing life where people read my work and assume it’s a male mind because it’s so reflective. I think that’s so interesting how people read minds a certain way. I wrote it for Pete’s class, a story about a woman fur trapper, and the story is really internal, but I did have a few comments where people wanted to argue with me about it being a woman’s point of view. Women don’t do that—they don’t kill animals for fur, and I just think, what do you mean? They absolutely can. Why are you getting stuck on that, of all things? Why does that bother you so much?

DAC: And as writers we always come up with ways we might fail, or even if we succeed, we won’t please anyone, ways of trying hard but not having the talent to do it. There are a hundred writing demons, and that one’s mine. Once I get started on a project though, those demons don’t bother me. The story and the characters become so compelling, and the world becomes a place I want to go into and make sense of. Writing is so much about making sense of this world you’ve come to create. Tom Connor’s voice was a voice of that friend who killed himself. My friend was never in Central America, he didn’t have Tom Connor’s life, but he had the same tragic arc, so I know in writing that I was working through my own grief and sense of debt that I felt. He’d given me a lot in his life, and after his death I’d been angry at him and I’d forgotten the things he’d given me. That’s Janine’s journey, in a sense. It wasn’t my intention that it would become part of the book. Janine’s movement from being angry at Tom Connor to her heart opening to everything he’d given her—that did mimic my own journey at being angry at my friend and then understanding the love he’d given me in his way during his life.

 

KMW: I’ve read a lot about you, so I may be confusing which interview was which. It might have been an essay you wrote, actually… “Finding the flow”?

DAC: Oh, about coming to grad school?

 

KMW: You wrote about how novels address the big fears and shames of our lives. Can you say more about that?

DAC: In that essay, I was reflecting, using the distance of time—the psychological things that drove me to write my first novel. I’ve found that true of every novel I’ve written: I can understand why I wrote it years after I wrote it. During the process, you don’t really know what’s driving you. You don’t know what demons you’re trying to purge. The demon I was purging in Hunger in Americawas the fear of dying before I did anything, before I loved anybody the way I wanted to, before writing a book. Dying before I got a chance to live. I wrote a book about a guy who doesn’t get to do those things. He dies before he gets to do anything. The question is, well, does his life have any meaning? Through writing it, I came down on the side of yes—as a way of reassuring myself. Someone else might read that book and come out the other way and think, what a waste! But, I mean, I didn’t answer it in an easy way, but I explored the question enough for me to understand that I didn’t write the book with that clearly in my mind. But that is what I can see I was doing when looking back. In this book, I can see that my writing it was about the embrace of the messy, complicated thing that is love that lasts over decades. An embrace, an attempt to embrace it because it always ends badly. People either break up or they end up dying. It never ends any way other than that. Is it worth it? What does it do to our heart? When Janine comes home her heart is bigger. My struggle as a man my age is I don’t want to be a grumpy old man.

 

KMW: (laughter)

DAC: I don’t want to be a disappointed, grumpy old man. That’s a common thing because life is disappointing. But I don’t want to be that. I want to keep my heart open. So maybe I wrote that book because I’m saying, this is the job. This is the job as a human being, to keep opening to the world despite all of the horrible and certain pains. It’s not a matter of if but when. Despite that certainty of death, the surety of suffering—keeping your heart open is the only thing that matters. I don’t care if I write another book. I don’t. I mean, I may tomorrow care very much, because sometimes novels are like black helicopters, they come down and land and they grab you and they say…

 

KMW: Get in!

DAC: Until they land though, I’m always flipping them off, like, get out of here! And the ones that have landed, that I’ve had to do, they were always very hard. Always harder, and they cause more suffering than I wanted.

 

KMW: You mention in a radio show how writing long pieces exhaust you to a point of—almost disappointment? When you finish a novel do you feel a sense of success? Listening to you, it sounds a little more glum. You say…yeah, your ambition becomes “emptied” and you are completely exhausted.

DAC: It would be wrong to say that I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment and pleasure. Especially with Tom Connor’s Gift, which is my sixth novel, there was a sense of exhaustion and almost an inability to feel anything for a long time. A real emptiness. And I tried not to panic from that, but just live with it and hold it and see what happens. The disappointment doesn’t necessarily come from writing the novel. Life is disappointing. Things sometimes don’t work out. For a writer no more or less than for anybody else. I’ve just met a lot of disappointed old people. Because life didn’t go the way they wanted. Whose life does? That’s what I mean, by the disappointment. I don’t want to be a disappointed man. A sad old man. I don’t want to be a person whose losses have reduced them. I want my losses to expand me.

KMW: You’re not diminishing but growing beyond them.

DAC: Growing, yeah. When Janine comes home, she is a wider person. Whether she can maintain that, because it’s a vulnerable place to enter your heart, enter the world, and embrace your children—that’s the journey of the book. That’s a little pep talk to me, maybe?

 

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KMW: Do you think it’s equal for both reader and writer, these feelings—or do you think you get more out of writing it?

DAC: I don’t know what my readers get out of my writing. But when I read books that blow me away, I can’t imagine the writer gets more than I do. It’s hard to compare. I hope my readers get as much as I do. I know half of them go,this is a bunch of bullshit, and throw the book across the room. That’s just a fact. I hope my readers do get something from my books, or some of them do. Thinking about that too much, though, you can paralyze yourself. You hope your reader feels moved and happy that they read the book. That they can read it and say,Yeah, that too is the world. The world is more than I thought it was. That’s why I read.

KMW: What’s the last great book that you read, and also the last book you threw across the room?

DAC: I read Nervous Condition, which is a very good book. And then I read Things Fall ApartNervous ConditionI liked better. I also read Portnoy’s Complaint. I’d read it when I was younger, but reading it as a 62-year old, I found it so audacious the way he makes fun of his culture—

 

KMW: That’s Roth, right?

DAC: Right. Another great book I read recently was by Hanif Kureishi, called Buddha of Suburbiaabout a Pakistani-Englishman who is like the protagonist of Roth’s books, who is hypersexual, amoral almost, but you forgive him because he’s young and he’s like a green shoot rising and trying to invent himself, boldly and without fear, and criticizing everything around him. Trying to be human. I just love all those books because they do that. So, what bad book…

 

KMW: Or maybe, your biggest pet peeve as a reader?

DAC: Okay, mine is a writer who presents a world in which it’s super clear who to root for. Who’s good and who’s bad.

KMW: There are signposts.

DAC: Right, I have no interest in that. I only want to go into a book with the things I think are true about the world and get those things mixed up. I want to go in with whatever sense of balance and what’s right and wrong and come out thinking I’m not sure. I dislike books that have a clear sense of what’s right or wrong. And they’re often very pretty books. There was a really popular one about World War II, this German boy and this French girl. It was a sweet story, but it was clear who to root for. It wasn’t a terrible book, but it was too clear.

 

KMW: You didn’t enter it one way and come out feeling different.

DAC: I like to be mixed up. I like to root for a character who I might not want to sit next to. I want to go, that too is human. That’s my biggest desire in reading and writing. I want to get into someone else’s reality. I don’t know why. I don’t live in a bad reality. I like my life. What I love about literature is the opportunity to not be me, to get to be somebody who’s not me. To live more than one life. Skin bigger than my skin. I love that. That’s why I write, why I read.

 

KMW: I always ask my students why they read, and they can never give me an honest answer.

DAC: Kill time?

 

KMW: Right, and I’m like, but why? Okay, this is kind of a hard-hitting question. So, you can answer it in any way you want. 

DAC: Okay. All right.

 

KMW: Are you happy with how your writing life turned out?

DAC: Oh god, no!

 

KMW: (laughter)

DAC: My publishing life, no… My writing life, yes. I’ve written the books I’ve wanted to write, and I don’t even know how. I don’t know how. I just tried so fucking hard. 

 

KMW: When did you first feel called to write? Were you still in Wisconsin?

DAC: No. I’ll tell you that story, but I want to go back to what you said. I’m happy with the books I wrote. I don’t know how I wrote them.

 

KMW: I love that. It’s reassuring to hear that you don’t know how you’ve written them but they do get written. 

DAC: Right? Every one was such an adventure. I was a different person by the time I finished the books. Really, a great life. The publishing part has been very difficult, full of disappointment. I have six published books, a couple dozen short stories…I don’t know if there’s any writer I know who’s published six novels and sold fewer copies than my six novels. I really don’t, and I’ve met a lot of writers. So, that’s disappointing. Kind of hoping I’d do a little better. I’m not going to lie. Your other question, when did I know I wanted to write?

 

KMW: Yeah, when you knew you were going to write a story.

DAC: I was a basketball player here at the university and I quit my sophomore year. I was sort of lost. I was taking a Native American studies class and I wrote a paper for that class that the teacher liked a lot and one that I enjoyed writing. So, I started thinking I could take some journalism classes. And I do. But I get a D in the class.

 

KMW: Oh, no! In the journalism class?

DAC: First two classes, D’s. I didn’t know how to write a sentence! I wasn’t very well read. I couldn’t put a sentence together. A friend of mine suggests we go to Africa. Okay! We flew to Africa, and I had a transformative experience there.

“If you feel inept, if you feel incompetent, if you feel tired of turning something in that you think is really good and seeing that it isn’t yet, and you feel blind and stupid—if you think that is because you are blind and stupid, you’re wrong. You’re doing the job of being a writer, and to be a writer you have to feel those things.” 

 

KMW: How old were you?

DAC: Twenty. Everything I thought was true about the world flipped. It was lonely. My two friends were smoking a lot of pot and so in their world while we there, and I felt alone. So in this vulnerable time, I started reading novels. I’d read, maybe, ten novels through high school. I don’t even know if I read a novel in my first year of college. So, in those months in Africa, I read a lot of novels. They were beautiful. I could enter a world and a new geography, multiple geographies of space and morals. It made sense of things or at least put a structure around them, so you could make a judgment. I remember thinking, this is what I want to do. I knew I had to take myself seriously, then. I get one life, and I wanted to do this. It took being far from home and feeling so lost and reading novels to realize that I wanted to do it. 

 

KMW: You talk a lot about self-doubt and seeking out advice from other writers about self-doubt. What have you learned and what would you pass on to other writers? 

DAC: A capacity for self-forgiveness. I’ve walked a tightrope of taking myself too seriously or not seriously enough. Being able to forgive yourself is also trusting that you are on a great endeavor, but you don’t know to what end that will ever be. This is the scariest thing, right? The fears of your youth become lost with age. I don’t know if I have advice, but you can’t go into the coalmines without feeling it. It’s not because you are bad that you are feeling that way, but you just are feeling it. That’s the job of being a writer. I have students who I work with and I try to instill this in them the first year: the notion that if you feel inept, if you feel incompetent, if you feel tired of turning something in that you think is really good and seeing that it isn’t yet, and you feel blind and stupid—if you think that is because you are blind and stupid, you’re wrong. You’re doing the job of being a writer, and to be a writer you have to feel those things. 

 

KMW: You just have to be uncomfortable all of the time.

DAC: You have to be uncomfortable. There’s no way to be a writer without having feelings of uncertainty. One of the things I thought I had going for me was I had the capacity to work on something that I didn’t know what it was for a long time. I had to hold things loosely and not be self-critical, to a certain extent.

 

KMW: Not so much that you stop.

DAC: And move forward. For a year, two years. It’s hard to work on something for a year and still not know what it is. And then when people ask what you’re working on! And I have nothing to say about it. Then they tell you about their interesting lives, and you have nothing to say about what this thing is that you’re writing. 

 

KMW: Are you done with novels?

DAC: I’ve been writing poetry. 

 

KMW: I find that interesting because writing poetry, to me, is really exhausting.

DAC: Two things: one is I can write for a month and have a few interesting things and I like that. Writing a novel, I never had that feeling. I can dip in and out. I like that when I have a strange thought or hear half a sentence that’s provocative, I can go home and turn that into a poem. In a novel, you’re stuck in that world. Nothing from the outside fits into it. You may take great notes, but it’s not all going to fit in. That sense of having a private work world that’s detached from my life doesn’t exist with poetry. I like that. It’s a new place to be. But…I bet I write another novel. But I’m not going to until another black helicopter lands.

 

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KMW: (laughter) And it takes you up with it.

DAC: And if it doesn’t, I’ll be okay. And that’s the first time in my life I’ve felt that. Before Tom Connor’s Gift I felt that I had to write a novel after I’d finish one. I don’t feel that now. When I was twenty-five, if I didn’t write or read for that day, I truly felt like I was wasting my life. There were a lot of consequences for that kind of thinking. Now, I don’t feel that way. That said, the last two months I have been compiling short stories. I’ve published a couple dozen short stories, but these, they all take place in Latin America. They’re all about people in exile, with exiled lovers. They’re not tourists, but they are all outsiders in some way. I know these should be a collection. I’ve been ruthless about what goes in, about the order of them. I’ve just been starting to send them out. I’m starting to want

KMW: (checking the time)…I’m not keeping you, right?

DAC: No, this is fun!

 

KMW: I’ll hang onto you for a few more questions. These are more about a sense of place. One of your novels has won an award for best fiction in the “Mountain West” and another novel won for best fiction of the “Midwest.” Do these places define you or do you grow into those places as a writer?

DAC: I’ve got one place that’s the center of my fiction: going home. Almost all of my characters are in some sort of exile and the dramatic question is about whether they will go home or not. The west to me, or the “West,” is just a word made up by white people from the other part of the continent who then treated it as a vacuum, where no other stories could exist there besides those of white settlers, and the west continues to be a vacuum in the American imagination. Out of that history, it’s become the place where people can come and tell their story. I never consider myself a “western” writer. The setting might suggest it, with stories taking place in frontier towns or gold-rush country. People come from all over with their dreams and for the most part their dreams are not fulfilled. I’m not a guy who tries to define this western place—my canvas has always felt bigger. (True home for me is a house on a farm in Wisconsin.) Sometimes we have someone we fall in love with first and that love might not last. There’s a certain purity to that love because it doesn’t last long. So, I think if you fall in love with a piece of ground, it’s home. Sometimes you can love other pieces of ground beautifully. You can love a lot of places. And you can feel varying degrees of that home there, but to me there’s always a place underneath it. I’ve loved living in Montana, so why do I write about exiles? I don’t know why. I don’t try to. I was with Pete Fromm this morning. He’s been a good friend for decades. Pete writes domestic stories, and they all take place within the family. We are similar writers, coming into writing in similar ways. But I write about exile, and Pete writes about finding ourselves within family. We don’t know how or why. We didn’t decide this.

 

KMW: Different helicopters, I guess.

DAC: Different helicopters, right.

 

KMW: I thought it was odd that you’ve received awards for best fiction of…whatever place…it makes it sound like the place is your identity rather than a character’s. And writing out of that place, what does it say about us?

DAC: Perhaps it has more to do with the award-giver than the writer. What they imagine should come out of that place…Do I have blood here? (points to just above the ear)

 

KMW: …A little bit! I think so! It’s not yours, right?

DAC: It’s mine!

 

KMW: It is?

DAC: We had the deer hanging, and it fell, and the antler hit me there. (presses fingers against side of head) Ow! It just hurt when I did that.

 

KMW: Oh!

DAC: I forgot about it until I put my hand there and felt my hair was crusted.

 

KMW: This is the most violent interview I’ve been in!

DAC: Make sure you say, “His head was bleeding from a buck antler wound incurred earlier this morning when the deer he was carving fell from the rafters!”

 

KMW: Are you feeling okay? You’re lucid? Everything you’ve said is true?

DAC: Totally lucid! A glancing blow. Though it is a little sore.

 

KMW: Wow, okay! Well, any last words? …That sounds more threatening now that your head is bleeding. 

DAC: No, it’s been a pleasure. What year are you in the program?

 

KMW: I’m in my second year.

DAC: So, you took Pete’s workshop.

 

KMW: Yes!

DAC: He liked teaching there. He said people were talented.

 

KMW: What are you and Pete up to next? Do you ever write together?

DAC: No. I had dinner at his house last night, but we didn’t write. What are we up to next? He’s gotta finish carving up his deer in my garage! No, but …we’ve had an adventure—our first books came out at the same time. We knew each other as undergrads.

 

KMW: Really? How did you meet? Were you both on the basketball team?

DAC: He was on the swim team.

 

KMW: Does he still swim at 3am?

DAC: No, I don’t think so. I think he swims in the middle of the day.  

 

KMW: Oh! He writes at 4am, that’s what he does. 

DAC: He’s always been a morning person.

 

KMW: I have to ask, did he have the mustache back then?

DAC: You know, I don’t remember. We both—coincidentally…I used to wear this long trench coat. Before I even knew Pete, I saw him on campus and he had long blond hair and he wore this trench coat. I thought, there’s another guy with a trench coat! And I didn’t know who he was! But we got to have mutual friends. I came back to Missoula from the farm years later. There are other college friends in town and I go to the Union Club to meet them. Pete’s down there. We end up sitting next to each other at the bar. “What’ve you been doing, Pete?” “Well, I’ve been working for the Park Service and I’ve been writing.” He’d been writing! I’d been writing in Central America. Who knew. So we exchanged a lot of stories. We sold our books around the same time and went on a book tour together.

 

KMW: You’re like writing twins.

DAC: Right! We’re writing twins. 


David Allan Cates is the author of five novels, and a collection of poetry. His novels are Hunger In America, a New York Times Notable Book, X Out Of Wonderland and Freeman Walker, both Montana Book Award Honor Books, and Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home and Tom Connor’s Gift, both of which won a Gold Medals for Best Fiction in the independent Book Publishers Book awards. Cates is the winner of the 2010 Montana Arts Council’s Innovative Artist Award and his short story, “Rubber Boy,” (Glimmer Train 70) is a distinguished story in the 2010 Best American Short Stories. His stories and poems have appeared in numerous literary magazines, and his travel articles in Outside Magazine and the New York Times Sophisticated Traveler.

 

Kylie M. Westerlind was born and raised in Reno, Nevada, where she received her B.A. in English at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana. Her fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine.

 

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Sarah Aronson

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.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Stephanie Land

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.

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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.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Chris La Tray

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. 

 

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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.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Andrew Martin

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.

 

SERVER CHECKS IN

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

SERVER: YES

 

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…

 

SERVER BRINGS SIDE OF BACON

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?

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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.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Emily H. Freeman

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.

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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.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Stacy Szymaszek

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. 

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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.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: William Finnegan

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
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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.


CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Keith Lesmeister

Keith Lesmeister

Keith Lesmeister

Keith Lesmeister’s first collection of short fiction, We Could’ve Been Happy Here, examines the contemporary Midwest in 12 stories that each stand very much alone but also feel very cohesive and connected. Lesmeister lives and works in rural northeast Iowa. His fiction and nonfiction have been widely published, and We Could’ve Been Happy Here has received praise from writers such as Benjamin Percy and David Gates. Bret Anthony Johnston said, “These are brutal stories—brutally good, brutally urgent, brutally hopeful.”

Denton Loving recently asked Lesmeister about the new collection, his home in Iowa from where he writes, and his love of basketball.


Denton Loving: Congratulations on your collection of stories, We Could’ve Been Happy Here. Many of these stories were originally published in wonderful journals such as Gettysburg Review, Meridian, Redivider, and Slice. How long did it take you to write the twelve stories that form this collection, and how do you see the stories all working together?

Keith Lesmeister: It took three to four years, I think, but that doesn’t include how long these stories have been rattling around prior to exposing themselves on the page. In terms of them working together, most of the stories feature characters with some issue that’s partly of their own doing. A recovering addict trying to regain the trust of his family. A couple of kids who have been wiping out the rabbit population around one of their homesteads. A middle-aged couple trying to reinvigorate their love for one another through the unlikely circumstance of robbing a bank. Also, all the stories are set in the great state of Iowa.

DL: Exactly. I wanted to ask you about the stories all being set in Iowa, which is your home state. The idea of the Mid-West is apparent in a lot of your work, especially in regards to how you create a sense of place to inform and impact your characters. Do you find it easy or difficult to write about this region that you call home?

KL: Very difficult because I’m from here, which means I take a lot for granted. I’ve had to readjust how I interpret my surroundings, thinking of myself like a tourist when I drive around, trying to take it all in. And despite the stereotypes, several parts of Iowa are quite beautiful. That’s been a big surprise for me as I’ve written this collection—how much I truly love the landscape around here.

DL: One of the themes I very subtly notice in a lot of your work is the tension between conservative and liberal ideologies. I’m thinking about your story, Imaginary Enemies, where two uncles at a child’s birthday party each represent different paths of thought. Another example is in A Real Future, where the protagonist laughs at his fellow firefighter’s bumper sticker that says, “Spay and Neuter Liberals.” He’s laughing not because he agrees with the sentiment but because he identifies as a liberal himself. This sort of divide seems systemic all across our nation, but is there anything unique about where you live that draws your focus?

KL: Iowa is a deeply political state in part or perhaps because of our standing as first in the nation to caucus. I’d like to think that my depiction of characters in my stories represents the state in that even when people have deeply divided political beliefs, one might still associate with—even enjoy on some level—those with whom they disagree.

By writing what I don’t know, it allows more opportunity for surprise and discovery, which is a wonderful thing for a writer to experience.

DL: Another theme common to many of the stories is the conflicting dynamics between children and parents. In some of the stories, children are dealing with their parents’ deaths. In some stories, children and parents are at odds with each other, and in some they are completely estranged. I know you have three children of your own, whom you’re very close with. What drives your exploration of these kind of relationships?

KL: As writers we’re encouraged to “write what we know.” I think this is true to some degree, and in some of my stories there are aspects that “I know” well. Other parts—and this is where I part ways with the writerly advice—I’m writing what I don’t know. In other words, I don’t know what it’s like to be estranged from my family, but several of my characters find themselves in that precarious situation. By writing what I don’t know, it allows more opportunity for surprise and discovery, which is a wonderful thing for a writer to experience.

DL: Despite the very heavy subjects of most of these stories, there’s a unique, sometimes dark humor that appears over and over again. I’ve read where you’ve said that you’re drawn to characters who have some element of surprise, as you just mentioned, and often the humorous moments in your stories are humorous exactly because they’re so surprising. Do you have to work for those funny moments, or do they come naturally in your writing process?  

KL: I appreciate this question, though I'm not quite sure how to answer it, mostly because I don't consider myself to be a naturally funny person. I do however know a lot of funny people, and maybe over the years I've observed their comments and timing and off-kilter view of the world, which might be what I'm channeling in my own characters. Any time something funny happens, I'm usually not working for it. It's usually some piece of dialogue unique to the character. Something I could've never come up with on my own.

I’ve been writing long enough to know my own limitations, and I try to stick with what I do well while slowly improving on those other areas.
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DL: You managed to include your love of basketball in at least one story in the collection, aptly named A Basketball Story. Talk about your history playing basketball and what the game means to you. Are there any parallels with basketball and writing?

KL: I played football in college, but my first love has always been basketball. I'm not even six feet tall so there are limitations to what I can do on the court. Of course I mention my height, but there's also my (lack of) vertical jumping ability and several other deficiencies. Still, I love the game and I've learned to take what the defense gives me. Never force your offensive game, which is true for writing too. Never force anything, let your characters do the work for you. And because of my height I've mastered the mid-range jump shot, which, like a fine wine, gets better with age, so I'm shooting probably 100% from mid-range. Another way to say this: I've been writing long enough to know my own limitations, and I try to stick with what I do well while slowly improving on those other areas. Which is why I'm reading more Alice Munro now than ever before. Which is why I work on left-handed dribbling. Which is why I'm working to extend my long game (beyond the three point line). Which is why I'm working on moving through time and space as I think about longer stories that span a character's lifetime. And which is why I'm writing from new and different perspectives. The other obvious parallels: hard work, determination, practice. And learning to deal with setbacks.

The cows are always bigger and scarier when they’re standing three feet away

DL: The first and last stories in this collection are about the same character, a man named Vincent who, in both stories, is trying to stay clean while he’s farm sitting for a friend. In both stories, Vincent has a lot of bad luck aside from constantly chasing lost cattle. Have you ever tried to herd cattle and will we see more stories about Vincent?

KL: Vincent is a man near and dear to me. I've been living with this guy for several years now, and I talk to him as if he were standing here next to me right now. He's horrible at rallying cattle. But he's got a good heart and wants the best for his family. Like him, I'm not so great at herding cattle either. The cows are always bigger and scarier when they're standing three feet away. I imagine Vincent will stay with me for a while. Plus, I'd like to see what he might be like if he reconnects with his family. Also, I wouldn't mind finding out what his family was like prior to his addictions taking hold and not letting go.

DL: I know you don’t have any cattle yourself, but you describe your home as a hobby farm. What do you raise there?

KL: One dog, one cat (recently adopted), several chickens, loads of stuffed animals, and lots of kids, my own and whoever else’s are around. I think the kids like me because I play Settlers of Catan and buy fancy chips and queso dip.

DL: You and I met while we were both students in the Bennington Writing Seminars. The program’s motto is, “Read 100 books. Write one.”  What are some of the most memorable books that you read while writing the stories that make up, We Could’ve Been Happy Here? What writers do you think have influenced your own work?

KL: Instead of listing titles, let me list a few authors: Elizabeth McCracken, Brad Watson, Chris Offutt, Mary Miller, Ron Rash, Charles D'Ambrosio, Jane Smiley. Also, my teachers and their work: David Gates, Bret Anthony Johnston, Amy Hempel, and Wesley Brown.

DL: You teach college level courses, including creative writing. What’s the best advice you give to your writing students?

KL: I like to borrow advice from Anne Lamott and Cheryl Strayed: pay attention and write like a motherfucker.


Keith Lesmeister is the author of We Could’ve Been Happy Here (MG Press). His fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Gettysburg Review, Harpur Palate, Meridian, Redivider, Slice Magazine, and many others. His nonfiction has appeared in River Teeth, The Good Men Project, Tin House Open Bar, Water~Stone Review, and elsewhere. He received his M.F.A. from the Bennington Writing Seminars. He currently teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College.

Denton Loving is the author of the poetry collection Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag, 2015) and editor of Seeking Its Own Level, an anthology of writings about water (MotesBooks, 2014).  His fiction, poetry, essays and reviews have recently appeared in River Styx, The Southeast Review and The Chattahoochee Review. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.

 

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Gregory Pardlo

 
 

On September 23, 2016, during the Montana Book Festival, CutBank's online managing editor Nicole Roché had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Gregory Pardlo, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection Digest. The full interview can be found in our latest print edition, CutBank 86

 

NR:  I have to ask you about the Pulitzer. In a New York Times article from last April, you were saying after the announcement, you felt like you were following around another guy everyone was congratulating. I’m wondering if a year and a half later, if it’s finally sunk in that you are that guy.

GP:   Yes, it has sunk in. I mean, it’s been a learning curve. I think I’ve always had a problem with accepting praise and congratulations, so that’s just a character flaw that I’ve always had. But I’ve also had to learn—I’ve had to learn how to give interviews. It’s something that I never thought about doing, or thought would be a part of my job, as a poet. The whole learning curve has just been rethinking how I can be effective in the world in the way that I want to off the page as much as on the page. I guess in that process I’ve integrated the formerly alienated self.

 

NR:   Ira Glass talks about this gap that exists between a beginning writer’s intentions and what actually makes it onto the page. I’m wondering if there was a moment, a period in your writing, when you sort of said, “Hey, you know, I am starting to close that gap?”

GP:   No. I think I might be a little different, at least process-wise. I don’t start a poem knowing where it’s going to go. I pretty much have no clue what I’m getting myself into, so I don’t have any expectations on the back end. So whatever happens, and I think this is true about my work in general, it’s process-oriented. What I think is most demonstrated on the page is my thought process. My thinking through formal restraints, or thinking through the historical and social intersections. I just keep shoveling information into the poem and see what comes up, see what I can make of it. So the result is I don’t feel like it hasn’t met my expectations.

Now, of course, it never meets my expectations. Not to say I’m happy with the work. I don’t jump up from the desk patting myself on the back every time I finish a poem. But I can sort of keep pushing to do something beyond what I may have thought was in the poem.

....

NR:   Digest says so much about history, about the burdens of history or the burdens of legacy, including legacies that are played out in increasingly sanitized or domestic ways, like the boys shooting off fireworks—“the household paraphernalia of war”—in “Problemata.” Do you think history leaves a tangible imprint on a place, on people, on the here and now?

GP:   Yes. So, it’s kind of reactionary against the notion of realism in literature. We celebrate Hemingway, for example, for this stripped-down style. And the way I had been sold that style is that it gets to the bare “real,” to things as they are, and I distrusted that without knowing why. Part of what I’m interested in in terms of time in this book is that—first of all, I think realism is as much of an affected style as any other form of literature, and it is not getting any closer to the stripped-down real, and why should the stripped-down real itself be something we should want to pursue? So then, step two, I started thinking, why should we want the stripped-down real? Well, we want the stripped-down real because we are so desperately anxious and haunted by the history in our landscapes and in our environments. You can’t look at the American prairie without evoking the ghosts or the crimes from which we all benefit. Faulkner’s “history is in us”—whatever the quote is. You can’t look at a Southern plantation and render that scene with realism, because it’s unreal to do so. It is a contrivance to do so. For example, when I walk across campus at Columbia, I don’t look at the campus without thinking about all of my heroes that have gone to school there, all of the history. The reason I’m there is because of its romance. The reason I’m in New York is because of the romance that I have with New York. I want the history, as sordid and as beautiful as it is. It’s a part of human perception, first of all, that we only perceive place through the associations of time. If it’s a new place, we’re bringing our own projections to this new place. So A, I don’t think its humanly possible not to associate history with a place. And B, I think it’s unethical to ignore the fact that history and place are intertwined.

 

NR:   What are our responsibilities to that history?

GP:   I don’t think of it as a responsibility. I’m hearing responsibility as obligation to history. I don’t think we have an obligation to history. But I do think it is a distortion—it’s the motive that I have a beef with. So, if I want to render place minus history, I have to ask myself why I want to do that. And if the reason I want to do that is because the history that is entwined in a place makes me uncomfortable, then that’s a dishonorable motive in my worldview. I guess I want to leave the door open for projects that want to reimagine the history that’s present. So I don’t think there is a rigid record of what has happened in a place, I don’t think there’s a single record of place, but some of those records indict us. And some of the ways we think about place indict us. If I have a guilty motive, that’s a problem. If I have an aesthetic motive… I’m uncomfortable with that, because it seems dodgy. But I think that gets to the basis of what I mean by ethical. Who am I protecting? Am I protecting my ego, or am I genuinely trying to create something?

...

NR:   In that NY Times article about winning the Pulitzer, there’s this grinning picture of you and you sound so incredulous. And now, hearing your thoughts about it—well, you’re such a personable guy. But I think a lot of people would say, “That guy’s made it. He’s totally made it.” Do you feel any pressure now to live up that expectation? Do you fear it has any effect on your work?

GP:   To be honest, yes. Of course it influences my work, and it influences how I conceptualize the reader. My reader is much farther abroad now. My reader could be anywhere in the world now, as opposed to a reader within proximity. Changing that relationship fundamentally changes my approach to the poem.  That said, I am nonetheless self-doubting and insecure, and a perfectionist. So none of that stuff goes away. Nothing has been lifted from my shoulders. I still agonize. I’m still an anxious wreck when I sit down to write.

 

NR:   As someone who has “made it,” throw a bone to us MFA students and other beginning writers. What advice can you offer up?

GP:   Find your superpower. What do you do that no one else can do? What can you put on the page that no one else can put on the page? I think so often in MFA programs, the culture is a competition to write the Richard Hugo poem or to write the Sharon Olds poem. We want to prove our cred by doing what someone else has done before. Some people will say you need to find your voice—I think that’s kind of trite, overworn, and not helpful. But there is something to say for a healthy self-awareness. We’re flawed, we’re beautifully flawed, damaged, and all-powerful beings. And the more of that we can accept in its uniqueness, then the more we can allow to be on the page. 


Gregory Pardlo's collection Digest (Four Way Books) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His other honor include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts; his first collection Totem was selected by Brenda Hillman for the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. He is also the author of Air Traffic, a memoir in essays forthcoming from Knopf. Pardlo is a faculty member of the MFA. program in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. He lives with his family in Brooklyn.

Nicole Roché is the online managing editor and a fiction editor for CutBank. She is a second-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Montana.

INTERVIEW: David Naimon, Host of the Literary Podcast/Radio Show "Between the Covers"

Interview by Hamish Rickett, CutBank Fiction Editor

I know you’re an accomplished writer in your own right. What brought you to writing? What influences most helped you to advance your craft? 

As a reader, before I was a writer, I was mainly reading Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and modernists like Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner. I knew very little about contemporary literature, even less about creative nonfiction and poetry. So, years ago, when I took a seminar called “Writing Inside the Box: Constraint-based Writing in Poetry and Fiction,” co-taught by the poet John Beer and the fiction writer Leni Zumas, it really changed my trajectory. Reading Juliana Spahr, Lyn Hejinian, and the OuLiPians Perec, Queneau and Mathews, and then having to write using formal constraints, created all sorts of writing I wouldn’t have recognized as my own prior to the class. It’s a type of writing I’ve really come to love, writing that often doesn’t easily settle into one genre or another, writing that often makes the presence of the author’s mind visible, writing that might not be weaving a fictive spell but instead might be inviting you into a peculiar and strange wilderness with no obvious way out. It’s a rabbit hole I’m still in myself, one that includes a lot of poetry, nonfiction, and hybrid texts, both contemporary and otherwise.

 

How do you prepare for your interviews? It seems like you have often read all of the work as well as nearly all of the criticism/reviews of your subjects' work. How long do you typically take to prepare? Do you have any strategies for keeping the flow going? Icebreakers? Do you have different strategies for different types of authors?

If I have enough time I try to read more than the book the author is touring for, particularly if they have a really varied writing history. For instance, with Eliot Weinberger, who I’m preparing for now, his book 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei is a classic book about translation, An Elemental Thing is a collection of essays like no essay collection you’ve ever encountered before, and What Happened Here is a book of political analysis and commentary on the Bush era. Given that his latest book, The Ghosts of Birds, shares qualities with both An Elemental Thing and What Happened Here I felt like the discussion would be richer if I had read these books too. 

I do also try to read other interviews with the author. I’m doing this mainly to avoid repeating the questions that are always asked. You don’t want to avoid these questions altogether because the listener isn’t spending their time reading past interviews and some common questions are, in fact, important questions. But I also want to find a line of inquiry that can get an author out of auto-pilot and make the conversation seem fresh and alive.

No matter how much you prepare though, you never know how comfortable an author will be talking about their own work, how much you will have to draw them out, how much or little rapport you will have when sitting face to face in the studio. I don’t have any conscious strategies to keep the flow going or to use as icebreakers but sometimes you can figure out author-specific strategies from your research prior to the interview.  For instance, I knew that sometimes Lorrie Moore was a tough interview. She had given an interview for the Chicago Tribune, just before I was to interview her, that went off the rails, where the interviewer was called to task for his poor questions. But I also noticed in other interviews, that she would really open up and be forthcoming if she were talking about writers she loved versus her own work. So I went into that interview with the strategy to talk about Donald Barthelme if things got cagey. We did talk about Barthelme in the end, but not because the interview was difficult. But it was something I definitely thought about going in. 

 

How do you structure your interviews? Are there questions you always ask? Never ask? How tailored are they to the individual? Do you have a rough framework that you start with? As you interview more and more well-respected authors, has your process changed?

Structuring the interview is the part of the process that hurts my brain the most, that takes the most time for me. Much more than the reading. The interviews are definitely tailored to the author and the concerns they raise in their work. I don’t come to the interview-structuring phase with a framework of any sort. What takes time for me is figuring out what line of inquiry, or lines of inquiry, I want to pursue, so that the listener feels connective tissue from one question to the next, can feel a picture being put together piece by piece because the thought-process of the interviewer is apparent in the construction of the interview. 

I’m not sure the stature of the authors I’ve interviewed has changed over time. Colson Whitehead, Anthony Doerr, Nicole Krauss and China Mieville were all early interviews.  If my process has changed at all over time it is more because my interests have changed regarding the types of books I prefer to engage with in a radio interview. I’m more and more interested in books that blur genre, are hybrid texts, or that somehow make the process of their making part of the book experience itself. Also, questions of translation.  I’d like to get more books in translation on the show. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to interview someone who has written a conventionally told novel, it is just becoming a smaller percentage of the shows that I do.

 

I know that you do almost all of your interviews in person. How does that change the process? What are the benefits and the drawbacks to that?

The news coordinator at the radio station requires the book interviews to be done in-studio. The upside of this is that you are sitting across the table from the author. You are able to read facial expressions and body language, to more easily establish rapport, to feel like you are having a conversation just between the two of you. And sometimes you are sitting with an author like George Saunders or Claudia Rankine or Ursula K. Le Guin, which is quite an honor. The downside of this requirement is that there are authors who either don’t come through Portland, Oregon, or who don’t tour at all. So if Zadie Smith or Toni Morrison have a new book out but aren’t coming here I’m out of luck.

 

What mistakes did you make early on that you could help fledgling interviewers avoid?

I wouldn’t consider this a mistake per se but in the first year of my show my interest in experimental literature far outpaced by knowledge of it and its history. I’m sure I would do a much better interview today with Sheila Heti or Chris Kraus (whose books How Should a Person Be? and I Love Dick are fabulous) than five years ago. Also in that first year, I didn’t pay enough attention to the diversity of guests I interviewed, whether in regards to gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or country of origin. It’s something I’m very engaged with now.

 

I know for me, a big part of my enjoyment of your interviews is your willingness to ask difficult questions and your focus on craft. As a writer, interviewing other writers, I find this particularly helpful and interesting as I work on my own writing. How has doing these interviews changed your own writing?

I definitely read differently now because of the podcast. When I’m preparing for an interview I’m not disappearing under the fictive spell in the same way as I used to.  Instead there is a part of me looking for questions to ask, examining choices made by the author, noting the things that make them unique. This has carried over to all my reading and I’m sure it has affected my writing. Perhaps it affects it in a similar way to developing the ability to articulate what is wrong with someone else’s story draft, pushing oneself to move beyond “this is bad” or “this doesn’t work for me,” and finding the evidence of why that is in the text. I suspect that developing this ability to articulate is helpful in recognizing the problems (and the solutions to them) in one’s own work. 

 

Having interviewed all these great writers, are there any gems of writing advice that stick with you? Are there any commonalities you’ve noticed between successful authors (and here I don’t mean monetarily successful but accomplished in their art forms)?

That’s a good question. Jami Attenberg did say something that stuck with me. She had a chapter in The Middlesteins that her editor wanted her to cut out but that she felt attached to. She said instead of following her editor’s advice if she felt resistance to it, she’d instead use the editor’s comments as an indicator that that section needed her attention.  She’d endeavor to improve it so much that it justified its own existence in the end. And in this case it ended up being one of the more memorable chapters of the book. Ursula K. Le Guin says that one of the benefits of having lived a long life is having a much broader view of the arc of literature. That the popularity of certain writing choices, for instance, short sentences, present tense, and first-person point of view today, doesn’t make these choices better than others. That too many writers limit themselves to a diminished number of craft options without knowing it, based upon what is en vogue, on trends that come and go. I also love how Mary Ruefle talks about how a poem isn’t necessarily addressing the person reading or writing it. That when you are writing a poem, the lines are talking to each other, not to you, until the conversation between them comes to an ending place. Kyle Minor, who wrote a fantastic genre-bending collection, Praying Drunk, that includes both fiction and nonfiction, talked about how important studying poetry was for his prose. That certainly has been the case for me, perhaps more than anything else.

 

After an interview and you’ve completed your editing, do you share with the subject the podcast or the transcript before releasing it? I would assume you own the rights to interviews and subsequent releases (for example I notice that you are often published in Glimmer Train’s “Writers Ask” and elsewhere) but if they are going to be presented in an alternative form do you give the interviewee a heads-up? I’m a bit of an ignoramus about these things.

For the broadcast and the podcast, the guest doesn’t hear the interview again until it airs.  But sometimes, as you mention, I do transcribe interviews and place them in magazines like Glimmer Train. I do get the author’s approval before I do this. The transcription process is pretty laborious so I don’t want to transcribe anything before knowing that the author is happy to see the conversation appear in a new form. They almost always are.  And they are also given a chance to do a light edit on the transcription prior to publication. This is mostly, I think, because what sounds fine spoken out loud doesn’t always read well when transcribed. 

 

I know your podcasts are becoming increasingly popular. How many interviews do you average a year?

Right now I’m doing fifteen to eighteen a year. Being a radio and podcast interviewer isn’t my job, so I can’t imagine it ever going above twenty a year unless it somehow became something I could do for a living. That would be my dream. There certainly are many more authors I’d love to engage with each year.

 

Can you share what current projects you are working on? Goals for the future?

For most of my writing life it’s been small projects, essays, stories, and poems. But I did just start working on a book-length project this fall. I don’t want to say too much about it at this early stage but I will say that it centers around a gap in my memory, an absence of experience regarding an event that has turned out to be a pivotal one in my life. Inspired by writers like Sarah Manguso, Eliot Weinberger, and Nathalie Sarraute, it will use white space, have a poetics, and move obliquely, through association and allusion, as much as forward through narration. 

With my podcast, my main goal is to continue to develop a strong base of listener support for the long-term sustainability of the program. I’m amazed and thrilled by the continued growth of the show’s audience but with that growth has come growing costs. So I hope people will both check out the show and check out the ways you can support it too.

 

Any parting words of advice for would-be interviewers?

Not to follow a formula, or even the way someone else does it. When you think of memorable radio interviewers, whether Michael Silverblatt or Brad Listi, or magazines with great interviews, from The Believer to The Paris Review, they all stand out for how unique their approach is. You’d never mistake one for the other. I think that uniqueness is part of what draws the author out and makes the conversation dynamic and alive. 


David Naimon has interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin, Junot Diaz, Maggie Nelson, Mary Ruefle, George Saunders, and many more for his radio/podcast Between the Covers. His writing has appeared in Tin House, Fourth Genre, American Short Fiction, Fiction International, Story Quarterly, Zyzzyva, and others. He has received a Tin House Writers Fellowship, an Oregon Regional Arts and Culture Council grant, and a Pushcart Prize 2016 Special Mention. His archived interviews can be found at http://davidnaimon.tumblr.com/interviews.

Hamish Rickett is a fiction editor at CutBank and an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana. 

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Andie Francis, 2014 Poetry Chapbook Author

 

Interview with Andie Francis, author of CutBank's 2014 poetry chapbook

"I Am Trying to Show You my Matchbook Collection"

 Andie Francis

(Interview by CutBank Online Managing Editor Heather Jurva) 

Let's begin with a pretty standard question: what is your writing day like? do you have any routines, etc., especially when you were working on your latest chapbook?


I wear lipstick. That, and I tend to write in isolation, away from distraction as much as possible. I’m a full-time teacher, so demands come with the territory. Sitting down to write during the academic year is a challenge.

I try to write-write in the morning, with my favorite coffee mug, before anything can supersede my intentions. Annie Guthrie, one of my poetry gurus, says we are always writing, even when we aren’t writing “on the page.” Annie’s idea keeps me going when I hit a rough patch. Even if I don’t have energy or time to face the substantial writing, I surround myself with language and art. I am constantly adding to my notes on my phone throughout the day. I keep a Pinterest with various boards for visual and/or conceptual aesthetics that inform my writing or thinking. I frame my teaching around language, and I get to hear teenagers read all day. I learn from where they inflect, stumble or giggle. I love to read new books aloud in one sitting to have the auditory experience of the book.

Speaking of, when I was writing my chapbook, I read Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers aloud cover to cover. It took several hours. I read Kapil’s book, and wrote a substantial amount of my chapbook while housesitting for Professor Alison Deming who lives in the shrub desert, and another portion while at the Writers’ Conference in Port Townsend, Washington. My chapbook deals with retreat, and was written in retreat, but for the most part, my writing isn’t relaxing or a withdrawal. I don’t want it to be. I’m grateful for the time I spent in Tucson and Washington as I forced myself to do the necessary mental work. I sat with myself for a long time, in a sort of desolation. In both of these cases, I mined myself for the stuff that I had been writing in my head for a while and tried to grapple with it on the page.

Where do you find your inspiration? Specifically, can you speak to the impetus for Cover image - "Matchbook Collection""Matchbook?" Who do you read? What have you been reading lately? Do you generally read while in the midst of a project? 


My inspiration comes from friends and teachers, the natural world, and, of course, from language, which is all of these things at once. I look and listen. A lot. I have always been fascinated with “writers” and “artists” as a subject, probably because I never gave myself permission to “be” one until recently. I pushed this side of myself away to stabilize what I thought would be an accepted or easy path. I lacked confidence in my abilities until I was admitted to the graduate summer Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City. That workshop gave me the confidence I needed to apply for graduate study and pursue my poetry for real.

I Am Trying To Show You My Matchbook Collection started in the last semester of my MFA program at the University of Arizona. I took a workshop with Ander Monson who asked us to write a chapbook as part of our final project. Initially, I resisted the project because I didn’t know how it could be possible to write a chapbook while revising a thesis manuscript at the same time.

I figured a way to develop two books simultaneously. I would write about the summer between my first and second year in my MFA. Everyone I knew was going through a breakup or quitting smoking or falling onto a cactus. I wanted to write a chapbook where these ordinary events were promoted to extraordinary because a part of me decided this wasn’t just a summer, but the summer. I also was in the midst of a shift in my work, and Ander’s class was the perfect opportunity to experiment in terms of form and process.

I always read in the midst of a project. I use other artists as a palette for my work. Maggie Nelson, Lyn Hejinian, Bhanu Kapil, Jane Miller, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Carmen Giménez Smith, Michael Palmer, Adrienne Rich, C.S. Giscombe, Kazim Ali, Nick Flynn and Dora Malech always have a spot on the top shelf.

I’m still crushing on Jane Miller’s Thunderbird. I bought it when it first came out, and I continue to return to it. I always walk away with new feelings, especially about myth, when I read Jane’s work. Polina Barskova’s This Lamentable City and Brian Blanchfield’s A Several World are bedside studies. I also just started reading Sara Jane Stoner’s Experience in the Medium of Destruction and Karyna McGlynn’s I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl.

I am also mesmerized by the ways you play with form, especially in the poems that merge previous poems. Do you write the three individual prose poems first and then assemble them into stanzaic form? Or do you write the stanzaic first and then deconstruct it into its component parts? 


While writing these poems, I was thinking about Hannah Weiner’s opposing dictated words in her Clairvoyant Journal and “questions of order and disorder, capacities and incapacities,” as Lynn Hejinian’s discusses in her collection of essays, The Language of Inquiry. I was also underscoring everything with Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence. My process was mostly just an experiment with language, form, and chance.

I think of these poems as transliterations. I started with a lineated form. They were written line by line in the sense that each line could stand alone. I was trying to get close to a finite memory by working with tercets. I wanted to confront the tradition of the number three. I wanted to see which line, first or third, or the liminal second, would or could be more “accurate.” Or which line would open narratives, either linguistically or semantically.

I wanted to know if all lines are created equal. I wanted to learn how lines could lean on or repel one another. I wanted to discover how the lines’ inherent relationships changed when placed into new formal families (i.e., prose poems). Right now, I still get into moods where I want to deconstruct these poems – put them into new families. Maybe work with even numbers (e.g., quatrains) to see how this changes the experience.

Thematically, I've noticed you work quite a lot with the body - pain, consumption, and so on. Can you speak to that creative impulse? "Matchbook" seems to read as anchored pretty firmly in place - what role does place play in your inspiration and your writing process?

In writing about the body, I use language that feels more vital to me, and because the language is immediate, I feel more alive. I want to feel alive, you know, exhilarated, even when I write. When I make the commitment to remove myself [from the classrooms, parties, restaurants, and bars] so that I can write poetry, all that’s left is the body and the word. My poetry is not a break from life, but a way of being continuous with it. In Tucson, I am very aware of my body. The desert does that to you. If you don’t get valley fever, you get a staph infection, shingles, a rattlesnake bite, a rock under your skin, dust in your eyes. You fall on a prickly pear. You walk home in a monsoon. You scream at the top of your lungs from a prehistoric rock. You walk around in the dark unnoticed because of the streetlight ordinance. The body is inseparable from place because it has been placed.

Finally, can you offer any advice to a reader who admires your work? What do you like most about publication as a chapbook? 

I Am Trying To Show You My Matchbook Collection begins with this epigraph from Bhanu Kapil: “Even this sentence is suspect: indefensible; potentially, already, rewritten.” In one way, Kapil is talking about language as deficit. Once the eyes have glimpsed the sentence, its other versions become lost. Potentiality is sacrificed. No matter how I write a line the first time, when given another chance, the language will re-decide itself. The reader should know that the edifice of the language is going to change, so I think it’s important to be skeptical of that initial context, to not ally one’s self to the language or form. It’s okay, of course, to read it any way. There are risks, regardless.

I started this chapbook as a chapbook. A lot of my poetry before this was about ends, about making ultimate decisions for the line. I was destining those poems. Here, the poems destine themselves, and re-destine, and I plan to carry this through in a sequel set in the New Jersey Highlands with the same speaker and “characters.”

I like how a chapbook fits in my purse. How I can bend the cover back once, and it will stay open. I love the cover of this book, a painting called “End of Summer” by Noah Saterstrom. To me, the whole chapbook feels like I’m yelling down into a well. I don’t know if I’m yelling to that summer, the summer, all summers, but these poems echo back.


 

Andie Francis is the author of the chapbook, I Am Trying to Show You My Matchbook Collection (CutBank 2014). Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, CutBank, Fjords Review, The Greensboro Review, Portland Review, and Timber

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: John James, 2014 Chapbook Contest Winner

 JJ author photo

 

Interview with John James, author of Chthonic

and winner of the 2014 CutBank Chapbook Contest

 

Interview by CutBank Editor-in Chief Allison Linville, who selected the winning manuscript.

 

1. First of all, tell us about your book, Chthonic.  How would you describe the general premise/theme of the book? 

 

For me, the book was always about digging and waking, and in that process, maturation. By “digging,” I mean, uncovering what’s been hidden, forgotten about, or intentionally buried; “waking,” then, is the speaker’s literal awakening, or realization, of facts or knowledge that should have been obvious to him—we’ll go ahead and say “him”—throughout adolescence. There are a lot of poems about sleeping and dreaming and waking in the book, and that was all somewhat intentional. There’s a lot of talking around things rather than about them.

 

But this is all very vague. Really, what it’s all about is, my father passed away when I was six years old. The explanation I was given at the time was that he was very sick, and had been for a long time, and that he had died of a disease called “depression.” As a six year-old, I didn’t exactly understand what this meant; as I became a teen, I started putting the pieces together, but since I wasn’t in touch with his family and was, for whatever reason, terribly afraid to talk to my immediate family about it, I remained pretty in the dark about it all. It wasn’t until later, after I’d started working on some of these poems even, that I learned the truth about what happened.

 

The title attempts to capture that awakening, that un-burial. Since the book came out, I like to joke that I made the mistake of naming it a word that few recognize and almost no one knows how to pronounce. “Chthonic” comes from the Greek khthon, meaning “earth,” or more specifically, “in” or “under the earth”—what is buried in it. There’s of course an ecological component to this meaning, and a historical one, if you’re thinking about it anthropologically. It also refers to the deities of the underworld, which offers a sort of tongue-in-cheek reading of the book’s otherwise heavy subject matter. In a Jungian sense, though, the title refers to the psychological uncovering of, if not repressed memories, ones that have been misunderstood or misremembered, and therefore misrepresented to the speaker (and, therefore, to the reader).

 

2. How did you start on this manuscript?

 

I began it as an undergraduate, then again as a graduate student, working on my M.F.A. Needless to say, none of the undergraduate poems survived. I actually sent out a manuscript just after college, which was accepted about a year later (yes, that’s how long the publisher took to get back to me), at which point I felt I had outgrown most of the poems. I actually declined the offer for publication, which seems totally anathema in the writing world, but I’m glad I did it. Those poems weren’t ready to be out in the world.

 

Maybe half the poems in the book are from my M.F.A. thesis. That original manuscript was called Years I’ve Slept Right Through, which is also the title of the very last poem in Chthonic. I actually sent that manuscript out the year before CutBank selected Chthonic for publication—no bites. But then I was writing these strange, highly emotive poems on the side—I’m referring primarily to the “Schadenfreude” series. I thought those poems belonged in a different book, but somehow when I shoved them all together and found the right title, everything clicked. The chapbook won CutBank’s contest, obviously, but was also a finalist and semi-finalist for a few other chapbook contests. I couldn’t believe the difference just a few changes had made.

 

3.  Was it after these changes that you saw Chthonic as being complete?

 

Well, as I mentioned, everything sort of clicked when I paired the fractured, highly emotive poems with the more traditional, narrative ones—“His Angels Especially Amaze the Birds,” “Story with a Shriveled Nipple,” etc. And then, of course, there was the title. But the manuscript really felt ready when I introduced the intaglios—the grotesque images that serve as section breakers in the book. My friend Emily did them; they’re etchings. I had told her years before that she could illustrate my chapbook when it came out. As it turned out, that was the very last thing I needed to fit in.

 

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4.  What is your writing process normally like?  Do you have a specific workplace, i.e. a woodshop?

 

I’ve never really had much of a “normal.” I write pretty sporadically and every poem’s process is different. I used to spend all day tinkering with a piece, sometimes writing a few lines, staring at it, turning those lines over, only to delete them an hour later and write something else. It was a very laborious way to write and I became such a perfectionist that often I just couldn’t write at all. I would just stare at a blank page. All of that changed after my daughter was born. For about the first year of her life, I think I only finished two poems: “Languor and Languish” and “1956,” both of which ended up in Chthonic. Besides those, which were mostly flukes, I just hadn’t adapted to the time constraints that having a child places on you, especially when, as a teacher, you’re the parent with the more flexible schedule (meaning, you’re watching the baby more). Eventually I figured out how to write very quickly without concentrating much on revision, at least while I’m drafting. That’s how I’ve been writing for the last year.

 

Because I’m so sporadic, I don’t really have a specific space. Sometimes it’s my desk on the second floor, but sometimes that’s a kitchen counter where my daughter can’t reach the laptop, or in my office at work, or a wrought iron table outside the library between classes. There’s usually a grade book open, and a stack of papers I really ought to be attending to, but I always prioritize the writing. The grading will get done one way or another. The writing will only happen if I make it happen.

 

5. I know that you were writing for Tupelo Press’s 30/30 Project.  How did that change your writing process?  Did you discover anything new from that project?

 

You know, I say I’ve been writing quickly for the past year, but until this month, I’d still written very little. A poem here or there, when I could churn something out. The 30/30 Project forced me to come to the page. I did it every day, and wrote a poem no matter what. After I signed up, I thought, What am I thinking? There’s no way I can keep up with this. But knowing that I had to produce something, that some of it would be crap, and that people would read it regardless, allowed me to produce. It took away some of the constraints that used to keep me from writing a single line.

 

I have to say, it was pretty difficult at points. I wrote my favorite poem of the month, one called “April, Andromeda,” in about an hour while my partner was making dinner. I usually take part in those kinds of chores, and felt sort of neglectful for not doing so that night—I can’t thank her enough for putting up with me this past month—but moving so quickly, reaching recklessly for the next line, allowed me to create a poem that was more fluid, more fractured, and much more associative than anything I’d written before. It was pretty exhilarating, really. I spent the rest of the month trying to recreate that poem, and though I never did, I produced some other really interesting poems that I never would have written otherwise.

 

6. Can you dig into some of your unique stylistic characteristics for us?

 

That’s a tough one. Early on I would have compared myself to Galway Kinnell or Seamus Heaney. I still love how terse their poems are, how the syllables bunch up into rough spondees. Some of that remains, to be sure, but I’ve become more interested in how to create fragmentation through enjambment and lineation, so my poems tend to scatter themselves all over the page. Space is also super important to me, which goes hand in hand with lineation, but how a poet controls white space on a page does a great deal to determine how a reader experiences that text on an aesthetic level.

 

I’ve also been super interested in the notion of “hypertext,” a 1965 coinage by the information technologist Ted Nelson referring to the links over, between and beyond multiple texts. It’s an essential function of the Internet; we click the links within a text, which bring us to another text, and yet another, and so forth. How, I began to wonder, could this work within poetry? I’ve yet to create a document that virtually links texts together, but more immediately, the notion has prompted me to excerpt material from other texts and insert them into my own. Sometimes this will consist of many lines pulled from a single text, as with “The Healers” or “1956,” which excerpt and play on text from Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries and Mao Zedong’s poems, respectively. Other times a single poem will excerpt snippets from many different texts. In either case, the resultant poems become fractured and polyphonic—and, when they take on political subject matter, allow me to subvert the politics or the rhetoric of the original text in interesting, even humorous ways.

 

Particularly with those poems that pull from various sources, I’m attempting to recreate the ruptures and breakage of technological experience, how things like smart phones, the Internet, and social media disrupt our concentration, introducing near-constant updates and rapid focal shifts—sometimes unwanted—that never would have impinged on quotidian experience even ten or fifteen years ago.

 

7. Where do you find challenges in your writing?  What seems to come more easily to you?

 

Certain images and phrases come up over and over again. Things like “in the wind” or “in the field”—they become fallbacks for me and I tend to over-rely on them as I’m writing. If I could only get them out of my head, I’d be better off. I also turn pretty readily to natural and pastoral imagery. I certainly think of myself as an ecologically minded poet, but I tend to reject terms like “pastoral” or “bucolic.” They're just not part of what I’m trying to do. But being from Kentucky, and writing about those people and that landscape, it’s very difficult to avoid those labels, or even to avoid introducing those images into my work. It’s always been a little frustrating to me.

 

8.  As you know, CutBank is working hard to promote chapbooks as stepping stone publications for a manuscript.  Can you talk a bit about the chapbook as an art form and a publication?

 

On the one hand, I think of the chapbook—or at least my own chapbook—as a preview of what an upcoming book is going to look like. But that’s not to say that a chapbook isn’t a project in and of itself. I think most importantly, a chapbook should be pretty readily digestible—something that can be read in a sitting, or maybe over the course of a day. I don’t know if you can even say that of my own chapbook. It’s definitely on the long side. But digestibility seems key.

 

 9. Can you tell us a little about what’s next for you?

 

Two things. The 30/30 Project left me with enough poems to assemble another chapbook manuscript, which I may begin sending around. Right now, its working title is The Problem of Science, but that could change. I wonder if it’s worth it to put out another chapbook, though. At least right now. In either case, I’m making serious headway toward a full-length manuscript. I think I’m pretty close. In fact, after last month, I think I’ve just about finished the last leg of the book. I just need to write maybe four more really strong, fairly short poems. It’s hard to say, for sure. Once it’s there, I’ll know—and all I know right now is that it’s not. Aside from some editing and a few reviews, I plan to take May off from writing, and then got at it hard again for a very private 15/15 this June, after which I hope the book will be ready. I aim to start sending it around in the fall.

 

Thanks, John.  It's been a pleasure speaking with you!

 

You can purchase Chthonic by clicking here.

 

John James is the author of Chthonic, winner of the 2014 CutBank Chapbook Award. His work appears or is forthcoming in Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Massachusetts Review, Best New Poets 2013, and elsewhere. He holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University, where he received an Academy of American Poets Prize. This fall he will serve as Graduate Associate to the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University.

Allison Linville is the Editor-in-Chief of CutBank at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana.  She is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and was a finalist for the 2013 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards.  Allison’s poetry has been published in the Bellingham Review, Cascadia Review, the Lonely Whale Anthology, Cirque Journal, and the Whitefish Review. Her nonfiction has been published in High Country News.