Monthly Archives: July 2013

An Interview with Sharon Short

Sharon Short Author Photo

Sharon Short is the author of My One Square Inch of Alaska (Penguin Plume, 2013), a novel set in the 1950s that tells the tale of Donna and Will Lane, siblings who, along with Trusty, a Siberian Husky, escape their Ohio hometown and travel to Alaska.  Short’s book Sanity Check: A Collection of Columns includes 100 reader-favorites of her weekly humor and lifestyle column that ran in the Dayton Daily News from 2002-2012. Short has also published two mystery series (Josie Toadfern and Patricia Delaney). She serves as the Literary Life columnist for the Dayton Daily News, directs the renowned Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and is an adjunct instructor of creative writing and composition at Antioch University Midwest.  I had the pleasure of meeting her at the most recent Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville.

My One Square Inch Alaska book cover

 

HUERGO:  What sparks for you the urge to write?

SHORT:  I’ve been writing since I was a young girl, literally since I was about six years old. When I was about 6, I put together a little book called “The Fireman,” about, well, a fireman, who rescues a little girl’s cat. I gave it a red construction paper cover, and the price of one penny (writing “1 cent” in the upper right corner of the cover), and proclaimed it, on the inside front cover, to be published by “Little Golden Books.” Ah, the innocent belief of a small child. I then promptly sold it to my aunt. Ta da! Full print run of first self-published book, sold out, in one afternoon!

So I’ve always had the urge to write. My first stories and novels were based on ideas that I looked for and knew I wanted to write. I knew I had to have something to write about. So I spent a lot of time asking what if about situations, and found some ideas that way. But now, for specific projects, I find that I now need for an idea to grab me by the throat, shake me about, and essentially say “I’m not letting go until you write me!” I just can’t get excited about an idea unless it grabs me that way. Maybe the “what if?” question has just so thoroughly embedded itself into my subconscious that I’m just not aware that it’s still operational, and it only seems as though ideas are pouncing on me in this way.

In any case, the basic idea for My One Square Inch of Alaska came to me in this way and just would not let me go. A stray comment about “deeds to one square inches of Alaska, that used to come in cereal boxes…” grabbed me. The very notion of one tiny square inch in such a vast territory and what that symbolized took my breath away. Then the shadowy image of a young woman and her little brother came into my imagination, and I thought I could hear her saying, “tell our story of our one square inch of Alaska,” and that was that. I could not shake the image or the concept, and so I began brainstorming away until I had a draft, or at least part of a draft.

HUERGO:  How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

SHORT:  I feverishly write part of a draft, and then have to loop back and revise that before writing more draft material. I lurch ahead with that, then loop back and revise again, then plunge a little further along. By the time I’m at the final third, I really know my story, and I write the end very quickly. At that point I have a full draft, but I wouldn’t call it a first draft per se. The opening 50 pages or so have already been revised five or six times, the next 50 pages four or five times, and so on. But then I go through the manuscript very carefully and revise the whole thing two or three more times before giving it a final proofing. Well, final for me. That just means the manuscript is now ready for eyes other than mine.

HUERGO:  Have you ever found yourself stuck at some point in your writing?

SHORT:  I don’t seem to get stuck, unless I try to follow an idea that seems initially right for all the wrong reasons—this will be easy to write, this will sell quickly, etc. The middle of a piece tends to go slowly for me, though. The initial rush of excitement has passed and the end is not yet in sight, and the middle is where all those self-doubting questions come up: is this good enough? Does it make sense? That’s when it’s helpful to remember that this idea grabbed me by the throat and isn’t going to let me out of its clutches until I’ve done my best by it.

HUERGO:  Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

SHORT:  Several! I had a chaotic childhood, but was fortunate to attend a fantastic public school system. English teachers encouraged me to write and read all through elementary, middle, and high school, and that really helped me both on a personal level and as a writer. That confirmation and non-patronizing acceptance made a huge difference to my confidence as a young person and as a writer. In fact, I’d say Mr. Cahill in My One Square Inch of Alaska is a compilation of several teachers who were pragmatically nurturing in the same way that he is to Donna, my protagonist, a girl who dreams of being a fashion designer.

Sanity Check book cover

HUERGO:  I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

SHORT:  I tend not to talk too much about what I’m writing next because then I find that my urge to tell the story diminishes. I will say I’m at work on another literary novel, also set in mid-20th century America, and that, yes, it’s an idea that’s grabbed me by the throat. I also have several story ideas that have done the same thing. I was a lifestyle columnist—writing, essentially, mini personal  essays—for more than a decade for the Dayton Daily News, and I’m excited that the audio version of Sanity Check (a collection of 100 of those columns) will be out in a few weeks.

 

 Author Sites:

http://www.sharonshort.blogspot.com

Author Photo:

Gwen Short

An Interview with Clarence Brown

clarence brownIf you read the jacket of Clarence Brown’s first novel, Needs, you’ll learn that he is a recovering heroin addict. “Born in Charlottesville, Virginia,” the description continues, “Brown moved to Baltimore at the age of twenty-two and immersed himself in the street life, heroin, and other drugs for twenty-seven years. Like Rip Van Winkle, he woke to find things greatly changed. With new-found vision he began to write poetry, social commentary and this novella. He believes writing to be part of his redemption, focusing on the next generation who were left to their own devices by his own long sleep and that of other addicts. Though this is a work of fiction, it reflects his childhood, addiction and recovery.”

 

book cover Needs

I had the privilege of meeting Clarence at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, where we were both scheduled to do a reading. Afterwards, it struck me how, despite the book jacket’s descriptive power, so much of Clarence’s spirit and talent could only be captured in person, in the passion with which he read from Needs. My recommendation? If you want to hear an extraordinarily authentic voice, buy the book; and if you want to meet an extraordinarily authentic artist, go to his next reading, where ever it happens to be.

 

HUERGO:  What sparks your creativity and the urge to write?

BROWN:  I develop an urge to write when I’ve observed enough. It’s strange to me that I feel
drained when I finish a project, as if there’s nothing left. Seems, when I’m writing, that I tune out everything, and when I’m not writing I open up to everything, feel more.

HUERGO:  How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

BROWN:  I get an idea and I start writing. When I finish, I go back and write more, or less, into the manuscript. I think I draw from my own feelings so heavily that I have to look at the manuscript again before I can begin to feel what others feel, see what others see. I guess that’s when I can complete what I started.

I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1961—a time when well-meaning white people were trying their hands at doing the right thing. I remember my classrooms being divided down the middle, whites on one side and blacks on the other. I didn’t understand why I was seated on the “white side” until later in life, but it made me plenty of enemies among my own people and created lots of resentment among the whites, so I just stayed to myself.

I could be found at the library when I wasn’t home. There was a world there that I could just disappear into, not worry about what I looked like or what someone else thought. I felt that someone was just too kind for creating this world that was so perfect for me. I didn’t have to sound black or white nor appear to have money—just read and devour all this imagination laid out for me.

As I grew older, I thought that I might have something to say. The writers I’d read made me feel as if I could do it, too. Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, and later, Octavia Butler, created worlds that made sense to me. People were too busy surviving to worry about skin color.

What I’ve found now is that it took me 26 years of dodging life and the hardship of a heroin addiction to give me a story of substance. I was no longer writing poetry to impress the women I met. Now I had a tale to tell. Needs and its sequel are a combination of what I’ve observed and my own life. I am all the characters, male and female, and they say what I did and say what I cannot.

HUERGO:  Have you ever found yourself stuck at some point in your writing? If so, how did you get unstuck?

BROWN:  It feels to me that getting stuck has to do with that running out of observations I mentioned earlier. What I’ve done has been to put whatever I’m working on down. I take the time to replenish my pool of observations. Sometimes that takes more time than I realize.

HUERGO:  Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

BROWN:  An author, Octavia Butler, was my favorite. Her freedom of imagination and the reality, the immediacy of her characters, was a source of delight and envy. The fact that, as a teen-aged black youth, I’d never known of a black, female science-fiction writer was an uplifting and motivating factor. I also know two men, Bob Jones and Neil Hertz. They taught me that it was possible for me to write as I’d dreamed of, to say what I meant to say truthfully, in a way that would be of interest to a hungry reader.

HUERGO:  I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

BROWN:  Right now, I’m revising the sequel to Needs, my first novel. It’s growing, this community of people who feel what we all feel, and I’m having to look at whether I’m being true to them or trying to sell books. Of course, like any author, I dream of best-seller success, but I need to learn more about myself first. Then I can truly tell our story.

 Author Sites:

BrickHouse Books

http://brickhousebooks.wordpress.com/?s=clarence+brown

Clarence Brown Reading

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOTb-jpPSMA

 

 

“On Your Mark, Get Set – Freelance!” by Sonja Patterson

Bust magazine coverWriting is similar to running a marathon. But as a freelancer, you may find yourself crouched at the starting-line, waiting for the pistol to fire—or more literally, a pitch to be accepted—so you can commence the race—I mean, the writing. 

From pitch to publication, a full year passed before my feature article, “No Man’s Band,” (about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-girl, interracial band of the 1930s and 40s) appeared in print, and I held the glossy paper in my hands. I sent my initial pitch to Bust magazine by email on April 26, 2012. It appeared in print in the April/May 2013 issue. As a bi-monthly, each of the annual six issues has a theme, and such constraints can make it difficult to get an article placed. Acceptance may feel like a roll of the dice. Compare this to the New Yorker, which is published 47 times annually, with five of these issues covering two-week spans. 

There are many reasons for this long wait. Most often, it’s all about timing. Editorial calendars for Sonja Pattersonprint magazines are planned six months to a year in advance depending on the publication. If a similar topic (even remotely similar) was covered in the last couple of years, editors will shy away, not wanting to appear predictable to readers. They are always looking for something fresh, surprising, on-trend or compelling because of its timeless quality.

The solution is to pitch more often, thereby increasing your chances of having an article accepted. Set a goal for yourself to send a pitch once a week or five times a week, whatever works for you. Try to vary your topics from music to health, or vary the type of article, from a long feature to a short service article.

While I waited for my “No Man’s Band” pitch to be accepted, I followed up regularly with the editor, showing my enthusiasm and reinforcing why my idea was awesome—often adding new ideas and angles so it wasn’t simply a boring reminder. Your goal is to make editors think they’ve got to get your article published or that they’ve got to know more about the topic you pitched. Eventually I was reassured when an email arrived that said,
“We’re very interested in working with you on this story, but we don’t yet know what issue we’d like to include it in. Once we get that straightened out, we’ll be in touch, but it may not be for a few months. We appreciate your patience.” They eventually decided to publish the article in their annual music issue.

cover of Bust magazineThis wasn’t my first article for Bust, a feminist pop-culture magazine covering news, music, film, books, comedy/humor, and crafting. The first was a travel article on quirky, unusual things to do that go outside the typical tourist traps in Washington, D.C. While researching the Howard Theater for this article, I stumbled upon black-and-white footage of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm performing there in 1941. I was blown away by their music and stage presence and filled with questions. Who were these women and why had I never heard of them before?   Coincidentally, soon after I went to see The Girls in the Band, a documentary about the many all-girl swing bands during the 1930s and 1940s.

On August 8, 2012, I got the article offer, asking for a first draft by September 5th. They wanted 2,000 words in less than 30 days. My first draft was 2,432 words. Since I have a full-time job, I worked on this article in the evenings, weekends, and on my lunch break. I did research at the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Archives, and public library, taking notes from out-of-print books, vinyl record liner notes, and black-only newspaper articles. (Newspapers were segregated at this time in U.S. history). You must (or it helps to) love your topic when writing feature articles because you’re going to learn more than you ever thought possible.

Sonya Patterson

I got in touch with the director of The Girls in the Band, Judy Chaikin, and she gave me contact information for a couple of the Sweethearts. They were mere teenagers when they started the band in 1937 and were now close to 90 years old. Judy warned me that they would be hard to get a hold of since they avoided technology and telephones. I thought I would get lucky, so I kept trying various phone numbers, but my heart sank as the phone rang and rang. Sadly, most of the band members had passed away. Others were in nursing homes, dealing with poor health or dementia. One band member came through in the end; saxophonist Roz Cron, 87, was charming and cool, just as you would expect.

I was also able to speak with a child of one of the Sweethearts. Cathy Hughes, daughter of trombonist Helen Woods, was more than happy to take time out of her busy schedule (as an e-radio and television personality and a business executive for Radio One and TV One) to share her childhood memories of the Sweethearts. In total, I interviewed six sources, four of which provided information I was able to quote from in the final article.

I was well aware that magazine editors take a different approach than newspaper editors. Magazine editors expect you to write numerous drafts and want to have a hand in shaping the story. I once read an article years ago by a Reader’s Digest editor who said he expected writers to turn in a minimum of five drafts, but typically, it was closer to eight drafts. I went back and forth with the editors of Bust magazine six times. The editors were professional and supportive through it all. They were like the people who stand along the race route handing out paper cups filled with water. They even had an intern type up my notes, so by the time I came home from work in the evening, I was able to use those typed notes to finish the story right on time.

So, if fiction writing is a marathon, freelancing is a triathlon that requires meticulous note taking, solitary research, and then, as you are pushing through the fatigue, the ability to turn on the charm that will get you the best possible anecdotes from interview sources. Think of the word count tally as a mile-marker that tests your endurance and exercises your mind. Waiting for a source to get back to you is equivalent to a pot hole or a steep hill. Reading your byline in print is equivalent to tearing through the finish line and proving your status as a “freelancer.”

Author Bio:

Sonya Patterson

After living for years in N.Y.C., Sonja now lives outside of Washington, D.C. She graduated from Evergreen State College, where she studied English, Communications and Writing. As a freelancer, she loves to write about lifestyle/culture, travel, health and anything else that piques her interest. She also writes fiction and non-fiction and plays the ukulele.

Author Links:

“No Man’s Band: Tales of a 1940s All-Girl Swing Band”

BUST magazine, April/May 2013

A feature article about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female swing band, and the surge of similar bands during World War II that blew America’s minds while they blew their horns.

SonjaPattersonNoMansBand-1

“Oh, Say Can You See Our Quirky Capital?”

BUST magazine, June 2012

A two-page feature on atypical places-to-go and things-to-see in Washington, D.C.

http://onswipe.com/bust/#!/entry/what-to-do-in-washington-dc,5054d822444f6789475f2c9e

 

 

An Interview with Betsy Prioleau

Betsy PrioleauBetsy Prioleau is the author of Circle of Eros (Duke University Press) and Seductress (Penguin/Viking). She has a Ph.D. from Duke University, was a tenured associate professor at Manhattan College, and taught cultural history at New York University. She has written numerous essays on literature, relationships, and sexuality. She lives in New York City.

Her latest book, Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them (Norton, 2013), is a panoramic survey of history’s legendary lovers—from Casanova and Lord Byron to the present. Through analyses, stories, and interviews with ladies’ men today, her book explodes all the seducer stereotypes. Great romancers not only defy popular preconceptions; they possess a trove of erotic secrets and arts that reveal what women truly want and suggest a way to reinvent love for the twenty-first century. BookPage described Swoon as “sharp, sexy, and completely engrossing.”

Swoon book cover

I had the pleasure of meeting Betsy for the very first time at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville this past spring and was immediately struck by her warmth and charm, her intelligence and sense of humor. I’ve been a devoted fan of her work ever since.

 

HUERGO: What moves you to write?

PRIOLEAU: Curiosity combined with enthusiasm and a passion for ideas and language. I also love to challenge entrenched beliefs and shake things up.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

PRIOLEAU: For me the art of writing is the art of rewriting. I write at least five drafts of every essay and chapter, using different colored paper for each version. I’m insanely jealous of writers who “never blot a line,” and get it right the first time. For me, writing is slow and arduous and doesn’t get easier with practice.

HUERGO: Have you ever found yourself stuck at some point in your writing? If so, how did you get unstuck?

PRIOLEAU: I have good days and bad days (complete with blank-screen paralysis), but I check in anyway on a regular basis. I’ve found, strangely enough, that walking away from the computer—even to clean the sink—can be helpful. When I come back, presto! The answer is often there. Sometimes, I alternate between laptop and longhand; sometimes, I sleep on it. Blocks are a mystery, but seem to come with the territory.

Seductress book coverHUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

PRIOLEAU: I would never have thought of writing had it not been for a college professor who inspired me with the romance of learning, worked me like a dog, and lured me away from fraternity parties to the library. She was a drill sergeant and belle ideal (an Irish ex-actress with glamorous literary friends), and after a year in her writing seminar I was hooked. I still carry a notebook with me everywhere as she commanded.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

PRIOLEAU: I’m mulling several ideas. One is Casanova the gourmet. He lived during a revolution in food preparation and consumption, and left one of the fullest records of this period. He was a great connoisseur of food, which he associated with love and desire. “Sex,” he wrote, “is like eating, and eating like sex,” and he described hundreds of aphrodisiacal meals in his twelve-volume biography. The stories and recipes have never been rendered in English. So that promises to be fun.

Betsy Prioleau

Author Sites:

http://www.betsyprioleau.com

www.facebook.com/betsyprioleaucentral

@BetsyPrioleau

Photo Credits:

Jacob J. Goldberg (head shot/top left)

Reflections: p.m. korkinsky

picture of p m korkinsky with her dog, a shepherd mixed breed P. M. Korkinsky lives with a large dog of indeterminate heritage in a small apartment in DC. Both poet and dog spend many hours wandering the city in search of words. When not writing poetry, Korkinsky blogs at www.zendogjourney.com about dogs that suffer from separation anxiety. Late Night Jazz, a collection of experimental prose poetry, is being indie published by iUniverse and will be available in 2014. An excerpt of Late Night Jazz will appear in Defying Gravity, the sixth volume in Paycock Press’s Grace & Gravity series (Nov. ’13).

picture of dog in front of the White House

p.m. korkinsky: The writing life is different for everyone. The poet, the literary novelist, the crime writer. We come to it differently. We are affected by it differently. For me, as a poet, I find life fragmented and lyrical. I wake at 2 am and listen to DC, the city of Washington. Without the traffic, the mentally ill homeless, the street musicians, the city in transition, I don’t know if I’d have anything to say.

I find DC speaks in blended mouths. I hear the bucket drummers pounding out the beat. I see clocks in towers and write poetry about metronomes. I see stray cats around the construction near the art gallery on 7th Street. I want to save them. I want them to save me. We are the poetry of inter-connectedness. And yet, we are alone in our thoughts.

I grew up listening to alternative and grunge music, and it affected my writing. Alternative music reflected my early reality. Distorted, loud, trying to break through the meaninglessness of the culture of the 1980s. I’m not sure whether it was a positive or negative influence. But it was an influence.

Later, music by R.E.M. and the Counting Crows started to influence my work, and music has continued to influence it. I play guitar and a little keyboard and alto saxophone. I like the less heard of folk singers like Dave Hardin and Sam Shaber. The lyrics are immensely poetic. In the past five years or so, I’ve been influenced more by jazz, which is solitary in a way–sound isolated from words. Coltrane especially can take the listener to a spiritual place. A piece of music can change my mind. So can a few lines of poetry. I find the power of music very daunting when trying to create my own work.

                   "She sits on the bed and looks at the game on the table. Own world.        Still the leftover sounds of moving pieces pawning the king into the streets."

Even though for me writing is about escaping the inescapable, I draw from nonfiction. I’ve been reading a biography of Paul Celan for the past two months. I like to take the time to reflect. I find really old interviews on YouTube on just about any artist–writer, poet, musician, designer, artist. We have so much at our fingertips now. To go on the Internet and see Coltrane talking about jazz in the early 1960s–that’s inspiring.

I also draw on graphic and web designers. Artists of all types. I like the graphic designer Milton Glaser’s belief that art should be in everybody’s everyday life. It should not be a separate experience. Graphic design, music, art, and poetry surround us.

I like meditation as a conceptual framework for creating. Walking my shepherd mindfully through the streets of DC at midnight is beautiful. I try to bring these images, reflections, sounds into my work. The soul of the city exposed at night is stylistically different than during the day.

I like exploring art in different venues. Some people can sit in a coffee shop and listen to someone drumming their fingers and get annoyed. I let that rhythm shift into the space of my poetry. And I never know when it might happen; it’s unpredictable, too.

I like typography. A poem written in Helvetica is different than a poem written in Futura or Comic Sans or something Gothic. I don’t know if writers think about this or not. Or if perhaps I over think it. But I like writing in different fonts as a way of finding something new in the poem.

I never sought out publishing in my younger days. Making a living, paying bills, all of that, was too important. I don’t regret it; after all, not living on the streets is a good thing. But with newer technology, I’m finding opportunities to combine art (graphic design, web content, poetry, and coding) and spending more time with art. I think technology is both a good thing and a bad thing, but mostly good. We are even more interconnected, and we are able to gain access to writing, art, and knowledge.

                 "Move forward and speak wrong word and back. Sounds in feral dreams."

As we move more and more into this technological world, artists of all types are adapting. And that’s really part of the creative process. I still write poetry in journals, but that’s like sketching a painting first in pencil or charcoal. It’s part of the creative process. The problem lies in being able to find great pieces of writing, great art, and great music on the Internet. I find myself watching a lot of TED (Technology Entertainment, Design) TV on the internet. It’s also on NPR on Science Friday. So Internet meets radio. Being able to hear a writer, artist, or scientist talk about their work is sometimes all it takes to start writing that poem or that article for a blog. This technology is great for inspiration.

My concern with the Internet is that writers who do not have a foundation in writing may have more readers than writers we really should be reading. But I remember the time before the Internet, and we used to ask then the same question–what is great literary art? I think we just need to pay more attention. And that’s okay—being able to focus and discriminate, those are also part of the creative process.

I’m just beginning the process of getting my poetry published. I’ve been writing poetry since I was seven, majored in English in college, but it’s just now, more than 30 years later, that I’m ready to put words out into the world. I’m not sure what will happen. But I do know that art is not publishing and publishing is not art. Everyone has the capability to create. And that’s what the world needs. When we create, we become active. We are more likely to create than destroy. In a world of uncertainty, that’s the most compelling reason to write.

p m korkinsky and her dog, Lexi

Author Sites:

www.korkinskystudios.com

www.zendogjourney.com