Category Archives: Interviews with Poets & Writers

An Interview with Meg Medina

book cover for Yaqui Delgado Wantos to Kick Your Ass

Meg Medina is a Cuban-American author who writes picture books, as well as middle-grade, and YA fiction. The first American citizen in her family, Medina was raised in Queens, New York, by her mother and a clan of tios, primos, and abuelos (aunts/uncles, cousins, and grandparents) who arrived from Cuba over the years. In her words, she was the “fortunate victim” of their storytelling, and she credits them with her passion for tales.

Medina’s work examines how cultures intersect through the eyes of young people. One of the pleasures of reading her work is the discovery of what is unique to Latino culture and what is universal. We can all find ourselves in her stories. Her favorite protagonists are strong girls, which is well evident in her list of published works: Milagros Girl from AwayTia Isa Wants a Car, for which she earned the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers Award; The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind, a 2012 Bank Street Best Books; and Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, which has earned starred reviews in The Horn Book, Kirkus, The School Library Journal, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and other journals.

book cover for Tia Isa Wants a Car

As well as giving Medina’s latest novel a starred review, Kirkus also selected Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick Press, 2013) as a 2013 Best Book for Teens, its reviewer describing the work as “A nuanced, heart-wrenching and ultimately empowering story about bullying…Medina takes what could be a didactic morality tale and spins it into something beautiful: a story rich in depth and heart…. Far more than just a problem novel, this book sheds light on a serious issue without ever losing sight of its craft.”

Library Media Connection described the novel as “gritty,” noting that it “manages to transcend the usual earnest fictional treatment by delivering a protagonist who is more than a mere victim and an ending that rings complicatedly true… This unflinching novel, with its richly developed main character, deserves a place with two other nuanced bully books for teens: Rita Williams-Garcia’s Jumped, a 2009 National Book Award finalist that explores the mindsets of bully, victim and bystander; and Adam Rex’s Fat Vampire, in which a main character confronts her guilt as a cyber-bully.”

author photo of Meg MedinaIn all, Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass has won an impressive list of accolades:

• School Library Journal Best Book Selection, 2013
• Junior Library Guild Selection, 2013
• Kirkus Best Books for Teens, 2013
• Cooperative Children’s Book Center “Book of the Week,” Nov. 2013
• YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Award nominee, 2013
• Amazon Editors’ Best Books of Best of the Year (So Far), June 2013
• Included in Pinterest Best Books of 2013
• Texas Library Association’s Taysha’s Reading List

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

MEDINA: Mostly people. It’s amazing to watch how things combust as a result of our frailties and fears. I’m also inspired by the idea of “story” itself, its connecting power, the way a small tale can speak to universal and lasting truths for people of many backgrounds and points of view. And, finally, because I write for young people, I’m inspired by the idea that I’m writing in a genre that readers remember forever. I can easily forget a book I read last month, but I can still name the books that I loved as a kid. Children’s lit is sacred in that way.

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

MEDINA: It’s a little different every time, but there is always both joy and pain involved. I usually start with a character and a basic problem. Setting, as it turns out, is also key to me—that sense of place and the impact it has on how my characters see themselves and the world.

Once I have those three elements in place, I follow my characters without an outline. Usually, I move the story chronologically in my mind and discover the tale as I go. (My best pre-writing time? Those few minutes before I drop off to sleep.) Unfortunately, this is a really slow way to write, and I often spend lots of time re-writing or deleting sections that, in the end, don’t move the story forward at the right pace. (I write for young people, so pace is crucial.) I’m pretty fearless in the revision process. I’m not afraid to delete characters, add entire new storylines, or make secondary characters into heroes. Whatever makes for the strongest story is what I do. I actually look forward to revision. It’s much easier than the original process of composing.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?

MEDINA: Strong girls of every age fascinate me, and I never tire of reading or writing stories about girls finding their voice and direction.

book cover for Milagros Girl From Away

I also write a great deal that is set firmly in Latino culture, particularly bi-cultural Latinos, meaning those who feel as comfortable in American culture as they do in their Latin one. I understand that world from the inside, and it also gives me a chance to provide young readers with more accurate and layered depictions of our families and our lives.

There has been a great deal of conversation about whether there is enough Latino lit, and about how we can better reach Latino readers. In my view, we owe kids books that transcend the Hispanic Heritage Month library book display and become part of general classrooms and libraries. We need books that move beyond food, holidays, and music and look instead at the human experience through the lens of Latino and bi-cultural characters. I hope I achieved that in Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Piddy Sanchez is a 16-year-old bi-cultural Latina, but her school world is filled with Anglo friends, Asian friends, other Latinas—the whole tapestry of an urban high school. And her problem (finding herself in the cross-hairs of a bully) is universal, unfortunately. Her culture defines her, confounds her, and strengthens her as she moves through the novel, but her problem is relatable to everyone.

book cover for The Girl Who Could Silence the WindOf course, I’m not alone in this push for more Latino fiction for children. It’s actually a wonderful time to be a Latina author of works for young people. We have giants such as Alma Ada Flor, Margarita Engle, Rafael Lopez and Julia Alvarez; rising stars like Matt de la Peña and Monica Brown; and exciting new voices, too many to name. The challenge isn’t in finding excellent work. It’s in removing barriers and in reshaping the view that multicultural literature is only interesting to multicultural audiences. If my work can help do that, I’m delighted.

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

MEDINA: I’ve had mentors throughout my life as a writer. I come from a family of storytellers, women who found joy and connection in telling tales of their lives with gusto and detail. I owe my ear for story to my mother, my grandmother and my tías. I had a few key teachers: In third grade, the marvelous Mrs. Zuckerman, who first told me I was a strong writer, and much later at Queens College, Judith Fishman, who offered me confidence and tough assignments.

More recently, my fairy godmother in writing might be my good friend and colleague, Gigi Amateau. Gigi is a wonderful YA author who kindly introduced me to Candlewick Press—a publishing house that I can only describe as a wonderland for authors. Gigi and I live in the same city and collaborate on a number of projects, such as Girls of Summer, a curated summer reading list for strong girls. Meeting Gigi changed my professional life, and it certainly made my personal life richer. When I’m stuck and can’t move forward, she is indispensable to getting me reconnected to my faith in the process.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

MEDINA: For new writers, it is definitely important to read widely in your genre to get a good sense of how writers solve problems in their own manuscripts. You need a toolbox, after all. Two other nuggets are to attend writers’ conferences and to focus more on craft (in the early stages) rather than on publicity.

For folks further along, I’d say to be good to yourself because sometimes this business won’t be. Writing is hard, gut-wrenching work that can bring you to your knees with self-doubt. It requires suspending disbelief—not only as you write your story, but also as you convince yourself that, yes, you CAN do this.

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

MEDINA: I have a picture book in production with Candlewick Press that is due in 2015. The illustrator is the fabulous Angela Dominguez, and the sketches I’ve seen are just so lovely. I can’t wait to see what our collaboration brings. I’m also working on the manuscript for a new Young Adult novel, also from Candlewick, that is set in New York City circa 1977. I’m looking at mental health and family during what can only be described as New York’s worst days.

Author Contact:

Meg Medina’s Blog

photo of Meg Medina

An Interview with Sheryl Louise Rivett

 

 

 So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art

 

Sheryl Louise Rivett is the blog editor at So to Speak, a George Mason University literary journal. She is also a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Mason, where she is working with two members of the Mason Health Administration and Policy faculty to edit and organize a forthcoming textbook on managing integrated healthcare systems in today’s ever-changing environment. She enjoys reading the inspiring work of leading thinkers and administrators in healthcare and providing creative support to the project. She holds a BIS in Women’s Studies in Communication from Mason and an MA in creative nonfiction writing from the Johns Hopkins University.

As a Sally Merten Fellow, Rivett taught in the public schools and Fairfax County libraries. She has also taught creative writing in homeschooling cooperatives in the far west DC suburbs, as well as composition at Northern Virginia Community College. In addition to teaching, she has served on the advisory board for the Virginia Board of Medicine, worked as a lay health counselor for disadvantaged women in Loudoun County, and has formed grassroots organizations that focus on women’s health. Rivett’s essays have appeared in numerous publications, and she is the author of Mothers & Midwives: Women’s Stories of Childbirth

 

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

RIVETT: The complexities that are inevitable in life: our relationships; our life events and our responses to them, whether tragic or joyful; and the ways in which people persevere and adapt; the way in which luck affects so much.

The voices of the past. Nothing is more inspiring than examining old photographs and trying to imagine a story behind the one-dimensional image. As a young child, family photographs taken in the towns and cities that my ancestors made their homes fascinated me. I’d wonder if the two women in the photograph had a strained relationship or an easy one; whether the man seated with his son, who I’d heard was a drinker, had a soft and redeemable side; whether the stout, stern woman who always wore a grimace loved to bake. When did the little girl holding the brown and white dog first realize that her mother had asked her father to leave, that she no longer had a father to tuck her in at night or attend her school events like most of the children in her Midwestern neighborhood in the 1940s.

I also feel a responsibility to the stories that have been entrusted to me along the way. For instance, I worked on a psychiatric unit when I was an undergraduate, and the patients often shared their life stories with me. I was an easy conduit, sitting behind the counter working as the unit secretary or sitting in a chair in front of the elevator to “monitor” any patient who tried to leave. (It seems kind of funny now. How would I have been able to do anything?) The elderly patients were the ones who would surround me while I sat at the elevator. I found so much truth in the lines of their faces and the depths of their eyes; they experienced so much despair over their handicapping behavior and idiosyncrasies. One man used to sit and pick imaginary peaches. He was depressed that the family farm, a peach orchard, had been sold. He sunk into dementia, where he imagined he could still pick summer peaches on his Virginia farm. Many of their lives had been quite remarkable, but society had shifted in such a way that their families couldn’t care for them because of their neurological illnesses and resulting behaviors. They were lonely and spun stories for me throughout my eight-hour shifts. My college textbooks remained unopened on the table beside me. I never found the time to open a book.

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

picture of the author Sheryl Louise Rivett

 

RIVETT: I love the drafting process! In fact, I’m most comfortable there. I can lose myself for hours in a story that I see in my mind, guided by intuition about one or two characters. During the drafting process, I do sentence revision constantly, and I read sections out loud, so there’s minor revision happening even as I’m jumping into the heart of a story. More serious revision is something I do best when my initial pieces have had time to breathe, to rest in a drawer or in a folder on my laptop. Once a piece has had time to rest, I find I develop a different relationship with it. It’s as if I’m meeting an old friend for coffee and we’re catching up. I’ve changed, the way the piece feels to me has changed, and we become reacquainted; our relationship deepens when I dive back into it and mold it with fresh eyes attuned to revision. I can better see where to cut the fat, where to expand, and whether there’s a better way to tell the story when I’ve had time away from it.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?

RIVETT: First and foremost: relationships, whether a mother and daughter, a husband and wife, or simply a chance encounter between two strangers. I’m fascinated by the way in which people affect one another and the ways in which life changes for a character, whether for the better or for the worse, because of a relationship with another person.

But medicine is another, equally important, theme in my work. I see medicine as an art that can be practiced badly—or with revolutionary results. What one generation deems genius, might be the next generation’s nightmare. In modern times, it seems to me that medical rhetoric is often definitive. Take this medication for this. If you have this disease it means X. Have a complaint? We have the answer, but don’t ask questions, we know best. We have entered a time when questioning and mystery and mistakes are not a part of the rhetoric—at least in terms of what is communicated to the public or to the patient. And so I think modern society is ill equipped to cope with illness on a real and authentic level. Finding stories that examine those real and authentic moments—or conversely, the panic when they don’t exist—is a focus in my writing.

I find the questioning and creativity inherent in the art of good medicine to be interesting, whether in modern times or in the past. Medicinal herbs and homeopathy, ancient forms of medicine like shamanism. Equally fascinating are the botched beginnings, like lobotomies and other early psychiatric practices. Where have we erred and what have we gotten right? What have we forgotten or discounted out of arrogance? How has this enhanced or devastated a person’s life? A family? A community?

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

RIVETT: So many teachers! From my sixth grade teacher Mr. Donovan to my first college composition teacher Judy Straffin. More recently, I’ve had the fortune of learning from Tim Wendel, Bill Loizeaux, Ed Perlman, Suzanne Fierston, Susan Richards Shreve, Alan Cheuse and Helon Habila.

I consider Helon a mentor as well as a teacher, and I’m fortunate that I’ll have the chance to work with him as my thesis adviser at Mason. I think every writer has a unique method for gathering story and finding the inspiration to express it most creatively on paper. Helon is the mentor who understands what I’m trying to do with my writing and who gives these quiet, generous nuggets of advice that fit just right, propelling me farther down my path as a writer.

All of my mentors and teachers have fanned the flames of my creativity and offered necessary challenges and advice. I’m grateful to them all.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

RIVETT: Trust your vision. Trust your instincts. Especially in the beginning. Write it through to the end before considering major revision. Only listen to trusted readers who understand your work.

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

RIVETT: Lately I’ve been expanding a rough story into a full-length novel. The main character is a young, single woman who lives in Washington D.C. during the 1950s. Her narrative shifts back and forth between her current life and memories of her childhood with a mentally ill mother. The other major characters who narrate parts of the story are the two women who have had the greatest impact on her life: the adoptive mother, and the biological mother who gave her up. It has what I consider feminist themes in that it examines women’s tough choices during several different decades. And it includes an examination of psychiatry in the middle of the 20th century.

I plan to return to a nonfiction project I started some time ago under the guidance of Bill Loizeaux, when I was in the master’s program at Johns Hopkins University. The project, a memoir, deals with a health crisis, the possibility of inter-generational illness, the environment, and a quest for healing. It will be my last semester in the Mason MFA program, and Steve Goodwin will be serving as my mentor on the memoir. I’m excited to revisit the material and commit to a final form.

I will be working on both book projects at the same time, which I’m sure will be challenging, but I find that writing nonfiction gives me a necessary reprieve from fiction and vice versus. I enjoy jumping from one form to another. When I do, solutions for the other form typically appear in my consciousness. It’s a very synergistic process.

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                                       Author Contact:

 So to Speak

sherylrivett@gmail.com.

Photo Credit:

                                     Alyssa Polcek-Peek

 

 

An Interview with Teresa Burns Murphy

Book cover for the Secret to FlyingTeresa Burns Murphy is a talented writer and (happily for me) a dear friend. Her debut YA novelThe Secret to Flying, published by TigerEye Publications in 2011, is told from the perspective of an adolescent girl named Donita Tosh and explores the intricacies of the mother-daughter bond. For Donita, growing up poor in a small Arkansas town during the 1980s is difficult enough, but having a mother with a scandalous reputation makes her life practically unbearable. Donita’s mother has always told her the secret to overcoming obstacles is to release everything that weighs her down. Yet her mother’s association with a succession of unscrupulous men is a weight Donita can’t quite shake. When her mother refuses to divulge the whereabouts of Donita’s father, Donita begins to believe the malicious gossip circulating about her mother. Once Donita learns the truth about her father, she is stunned by her mother’s resilience in the face of crushing adversity.

 Alan Cheuse, book commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered and author of Song of Slaves in the Desert, describes The Secret to Flying as “a distinctive tale that starts with a keen sense of narrative and deep insight into human relations, and just keeps going.” Richard Peabody, prolific writer and editor of Gargoyle Magazine, describes the novel as “part Harper Lee, part David Lynch,” adding that “Teresa Burns Murphy juggles a full menu of toxic bells and whistles—shotguns, rape, extortion and more—in her debut novel. Teenage Donita navigates the slaloms of adolescence in small town Arkansas circa 1982. She rattles the bars of her caged life trying to escape while struggling to solve the puzzle that is her mother, find the father she never knew, and come to grips with a tangled web of imperfect love. Donita suffers a few close calls before discovering that forgiveness, more than understanding, is what the heart craves most. Murphy takes us along for the ride and brings us back high on adrenaline and very much alive.”  Montage of Recent Publications

Murphy’s writing has appeared in Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women (Paycock Press, 2012), Academic Exchange QuarterlyGargoyle MagazineInquiryPulse Literary Review, Science TeacherSouthern Women’s ReviewTHEMA, the Washington Post, and Westview. She won the 1996 WORDS Award for Fiction and was a semi-finalist for the 2005 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.  Her short story, Halloween Gifts,” was a finalist for the 2006 Kate Braverman Short Story Prize, and her poem,Geometry Lesson,” was a finalist for the 2009 Janice Farrell Poetry Prize. Originally from Arkansas, she currently lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C.

 

Teresa Burns Murphy, Author Photo by Margaret Murphy HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

BURNS MURPHY: I am inspired by people and their stories. Everybody has a story. I grew up in a culture where storytelling was as natural as breathing. I listened to family stories, work stories, Bible stories, and survival stories. The potential for drama lurked in each facet of everyday life. Later, I read the works of writers–Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers—whose stories resonated with me.

When I was an MFA student at George Mason University, I had the privilege of studying with a wonderful writer—Richard Bausch. I had read his short story, “What Feels Like the World,” and was so inspired by it. In that story, he does what all good storytellers aspire to do; he delivers each literary element in a way that elicits the maximum emotional impact. By the time readers get to the last word, they know everything they need to know about the characters through the details Bausch has sprinkled through the narrative. Upon absorbing these details, readers feel the protagonist’s pain as he watches someone he loves confront an everyday obstacle that for other people is no big deal, but for her is everything.

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

BURNS MURPHY: Post-it notes and yellow legal pads are scattered all over my house when I am composing a piece, so I can jot down ideas as they arrive. After I have written a draft, I type it and then I print it out and go over it numerous times, making changes. Often, the story doesn’t work and whole parts of it have to be rewritten. Once that is done, revision begins again. This procedure repeats itself over and over and over again until I have a draft I can present to others to critique. I find drafting extremely energy draining and revision energy producing. Once I have that original blob down on paper, I can begin to shape it. The shaping can go on endlessly, so eventually I either give up on the piece or send it out into the world.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?

BURNS MURPHY: The most important theme in my work is letting go. The theme is present in almost everything I write. In The Secret to Flying, the main character’s mother tells her she must release everything that weighs her down. Metaphorically, Donita must be able to release the negativity in her life if she is going to be weightless enough to “fly.” In another novel I have written, two characters, a middle school boy and his grandmother, are overweight, and they feel that the extra weight is keeping them from leading the lives they want to lead. So they let go of the weight.

Though I can’t be totally sure why this theme recurs, I have a pretty good idea. When I was growing up, I was always encouraged by older and wiser members of my family to hold on to the positive and release the negative. My mother even sang me the lyrics of the Johnny Mercer song, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” a time or two, particularly the lines—“You’ve got to accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative.” Another reason is more straightforward. I was a chubby kid; and, one day, I decided I didn’t want to be chubby anymore. So, just as some of the characters in my fictional stories have done, I literally let go of that extra weight.

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

BURNS MURPHY: I have had so many fabulous teachers and mentors—my family members as well as my teachers from elementary school through graduate school. However, one teacher, Susan Richards Shreve, stands out because she did for me what all good mentors do. She put me on a path to get the encouragement I needed to keep writing.

When I completed the thesis for my MFA, which was a novel that eventually became The Secret to Flying, I gave it to Susan. I was so nervous while I waited for her to read it. I remember going to her office at Mason after she told me she had read the manuscript. She is a writer whose work I admire, and she is a very kind and generous person, but she can also be fierce.

When I came into her office, she looked at me with her piercing brown eyes, handed me the manuscript and said, “I love it.”

I was over the moon!

Later, she gave me a list of agents, and I sent the manuscript off to them. Some of them expressed interest in the manuscript, but they ultimately declined it. Through it all, Susan continued to encourage me, but I was a bit disheartened. Then, I saw an ad for the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, so I emailed Susan to ask her if I should send my manuscript to them.

Very quickly, she replied with a two-word email, “Submit it!”

Though I didn’t win the Peter Taylor Prize, I was a semi-finalist for it, and the director sent me a very encouraging letter. A few months later, I got a phone call from a man who had published some of Peter Taylor’s work, and he invited me to send him the first few chapters of my novel. Then, he asked for the entire manuscript.  He ended up not taking it because his company doesn’t publish young adult novels, but he was very supportive and even gave me the name of another publisher he thought might be interested in the novel. Those experiences kept me going through some pretty lean times.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

BURNS MURPHY: Keep listening to other people’s stories, all the while observing them for the details that remain unspoken. Keep reading other people’s stories. And, keep writing. Then read the stories you have written out loud to yourself and consider whether or not the characters would have presented themselves in the way that you have presented them. Authenticity is essential to writing stories that stir the emotions of others and leave a lasting impact.

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

BURNS MURPHY: In recent months, I have been writing short creative nonfiction pieces for a former student’s gratitude blog. Writers tend not to be the happiest people in the world, and I read that research in neuroscience has indicated that being grateful can help people be happy. I wanted to see if that was true, so I started writing about the people in my life for whom I am most grateful. In that blog post, I wrote about how my mother helped me study for a class with a very difficult teacher when I was a little girl.

My mother was typically a stickler for good grades, 
but when those C’s began appearing on my report card, 
she told me to do my best and not worry so much about the grade I got. 
Even when the C’s dropped to a C- during one grading period, 
she didn’t reprimand me.

“I don’t want to make a D,” I sobbed 
as I handed her the offending report card.

“You won’t,” my mother reassured me. 
“I’ve got a plan for improving your penmanship.”

My mother’s plan was for me to copy her handwriting, 
five pages each weeknight for the next six weeks. 
If I completed my work before my favorite television shows 
came on after the evening news, I could watch them. 
If not, those Beverly Hillbillies would have to 
exasperate and outsmart the city folk without me. 
The cast of Lost in Space would have to escape 
the villains of the cosmos without this 
small earthling cheering them on. And worst of all, 
I would miss the antics of that adorable sheepdog in 
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. 
Desperate to go to places where there were no
 mean third grade teachers, 
I filled up those five pages night after night 
as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley droned on 
about the escalating war in Vietnam 
and the rising racial tensions at home.

You can find all of Murphy's "My Mother's Emmy Award Winning Moment" 
at Your Daily Dose of Gratitude

 Author Contact: Teresa Burns Murphy, author photo by Margaret Murphy

 www.teresaburnsmurphy.com

 http://www.linkedin.com/pub/teresa-burns-murphy/23/956/781

 https://twitter.com/teresalmva

 Photo Credit:

 Margaret Murphy


Necklace by Varda Avnisan

An Interview with Tim Wendel

book cover for Habana Libre

When One More Page Books, a local indie book store in Arlington, Virginia, invited me to do a reading in tandem with Tim Wendel, who also writes about Cuba, I don’t mind admitting I felt a little intimidated. Wendel, after all, is the author of 10 books, including Summer of ’68Castro’s Curveball, High Heat and Habana picture of the author Tim WendelLibre His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, American Scholar, Gargoyle, GQ and Esquireand he teaches fiction and nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, where he’s a writer in residence.

High Heat got high praise from the The New York Times. It was even designated “Editor’s Choice,” the reviewer observing that “Wendel’s writing is also all fastballs. Sensitive and scrupulous… [his writing] is a séance with the game’s past, an almost literary fantasy….”

Of Habana Libre, his most recent work, Holly Goddard Jones, author of The Next Time You See Me, describes the characters as acast of dreamers” for whom “America is more of an abstract ideal than a place that can be reached by boat. Wendel tells their story with tender complexity and rich detail.” Fortunately for me, Tim Wendel could not be a kinder, gentler, more salt of the earth sort of soul. The sort of person who immediately puts everyone at ease.

 

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

WENDEL: I believe in the power of stories. They can save us, and a well-told tale holds a lot about the secrets of life, especially how to stay at it even when everything seems stacked against us. Richard Ford once said that when you read something that strikes a chord within you, the natural tendency is to try and do it yourself. There’s nothing like finishing a good read and then imagining what you can do.

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

WENDEL: In recent years, I’ve tried to let things sit a bit before sending them out to the world. This allows me to see the places where the story could use a bit of polish. In addition, I often do more research during the revision stage. If a scene needs a boost, it can often be found in additional detail or back story that helps with the understanding of the characters. We’re so lucky in the D.C. area, where I make my home, with the Library of Congress and National Archives close by. A trip to them or even the local library can underscore and help emphasize things, especially a pivotal scene.

book cover for Castro's CurveballHUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?

WENDEL: Good question. In looking back on my work, a key theme has to be perseverance. I often write about the underdog, whether it is in my novels or narrative nonfiction. I’m also intrigued by group dynamics. Even though my writing usually has several key characters, they are often involved in a group, and how they come together is crucial to their overall success. This is certainly true with the nonfiction titles—Summer of ’68, High Heat, Going for the Gold. But it is also key on the fiction side with Castro’s Curveball and Habana Libre.

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

WENDEL: I’m been extremely fortunate to have several great teachers during my career, going back to my high school days, which is saying something because I went to a rural school in western New York state. In college, I studied with a master of long-form narrative, Bill Glavin, at Syracuse University. And since then I’ve been blessed to learn from Nick Delbanco, Margot Livesey, Marita Golden, Carolyn Doty, Oakley Hall and Alan Cheuse to name a few. But I also think it’s important to seek good teachers out. I have attended several summer conferences (Sewanee and Squaw Valley) simply because somebody whose work I admired was teaching there.

HUERGO: How has teaching affected your writing?book cover for High Heat

WENDEL: It means I cannot cheat. What I mean by that is I cannot advise my students to go in one direction and then not pursue the same path with my own writing. Teaching keeps me honest about my own efforts on the page.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

WENDEL: Try to bring some degree of regularity to your craft. Certainly writing is easier when we’re inspired or a story is going well. But some of the best scenes or moments happen on the days when it all seems simply like a lot of work. But if you can put down a few lines, fill a page in your notebook, it can often lead to some effective passages and insights. Writing in this day and age is tough—no doubt about it. Between work, family, etc., finding the time can be difficult. But seize the time. It will be worth it. I wrote my first novel on the D.C. Metro. It was the only time I had back then, but I got a good book out of it.

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

WENDEL: I tend to alternate between fiction and nonfiction. It keeps me from becoming stale. So, after the recent novella, Habana Libre, I’m back to writing about sports and history in a new book for Da Capo entitled Down to the Last Strike. It will be out in spring 2014 and includes a slice of memoir, which is new for me. After that I’m back to the beginning, looking through various ideas in my notebook, and I’m thinking the next one could be another novel or even a screenplay.

 

 Author Contact:

www.timwendel.com

@Tim_Wendel

 

 Nervous Author at One More Page Books:

http://www.onemorepagebooks.com/

EMH OneMorePage Books

Photo by P. M. Korkinsky

An Interview with Raquel Cepeda

Birds of Paradise book cover

I had the pleasure of meeting Raquel Cepeda—not in person, but over the telephone, in an interview conducted by Nora de Hoyos Comstock, founding member, president and CEO of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, an international group of comadres (“godmothers”) who work to unite us all through literature written by Latinas/os. So the first thing I experienced and recognized about Cepeda is her powerful and passionate voice. It is a voice that has had the courage to speak about Latino-American identity, immigration, hip-hop culture, and mental health issues among Latina-American teenagers.

Born in Harlem to Dominican parents, Cepeda is an award-winning journalist, cultural activist, and documentary filmmaker. Her most recent book, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, is a memoir about growing up in New York City and Santo Domingo, as well as a detective story that traces her year-long journey to learn about her ancestry. Bird of Paradise,” wrote David J. Leonard, “speaks to the growing intersections of ethnography, memoir and science. It points to the changing nature of looking backward not only for exploring personal histories but those of the communities. The work points to a growing willingness among the hip-hop generation to push aside conventions, to expose personal vulnerability and uncertainty alongside of scientific discovery.”  

Raquel_Cepeda_2Cepeda’s writings have been anthologized and her byline featured in People, the Associated PressThe Village Voice, MTV News, and CNN.com. As a free-lance reporter, she has contributed to WNYC, CNN and CNN’s Inside the Middle East. She edited the critically acclaimed anthology And It Don’t Stop: The Best Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years, winner of the PEN/Beyond Margins and Latino Book Award. As the former editor in chief of Russell Simmons’ Oneworld, Cepeda was responsible for the magazine’s overhaul in September 2001, winning a Folio Award for best re-design and receiving accolades for her global take on urban culture. In 2013, she was named one of El Diario/La Prensa’s Distinguished Women and also sits on the board of City Lore and the Style Wars Restoration Project. She also directed and produced Bling: A Planet Rock, a feature-length documentary about American hip-hop culture’s obsession with diamonds and all of its social trappings, and how the infatuation with “blinging” became intertwined in Sierra Leone’s decade long conflict.

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

CEPEDA: Many things inspire me to write. My answer changes depending on the day. However, I can tell you that what compels me to write is this feeling, this sense when I’m writing that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing on earth. I remember the day I called my maternal grandmother to tell her that I sold Bird of Paradise, and she just started laughing and hollering on the other end. I was like, “Mama, why are you laughing at me?” After a few minutes—literally, she couldn’t stop laughing—she composed herself and replied, “When you were a little girl living with us in Santo Domingo, you used to pull on my hem whenever you were mad and say, ‘One day I’m going to write about this family and set the record straight!’ before storming off.” I don’t remember doing that, but I that’s exactly what I did. So, I guess becoming a writer was a part of my destiny, after all.

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

CEPEDA: With Bird of Paradise, my drafting and revision process was a deeply spiritual and holistic one. I had been writing versions of this story for years and deleting, editing, putting it away and revisiting it from time to time. However, when I set out to see it through—to draft the proposal, shop and sell the book—the words just poured out of me like a tsunami. It felt like a gift from the universe. The whole thing, including the sometimes painful revision process, (you know, cutting out stories, characters, and other unnecessary fat), was ultimately personally rewarding.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?picture of Raquel Cepeda

CEPEDA: It depends on the project. I would say with Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, the most important theme is identity, or rather, the exploration of the self. We are always shifting, and so we must be able to do the work of exploring and defining ourselves outside of the ethnic/racial check-boxes we are crammed into here in the U.S.

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

CEPEDA: No, there wasn’t. In my book it becomes apparent early on that the problems with our current educational paradigm in New York and the US are still as pervasive today as they were when I was growing up. I can see why many kids, especially Black- and Latino/a- Americans become disengaged or, worse, develop a low self-esteem.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

CEPEDA: Writers should abandon inhibition before sitting down in front of their computers or before putting pen to paper: connect to the gift and let it pour out from within. Worry about revisions later. I also strongly suggest developing a routine that includes at least an hour of sweating. Starting the work day at my boxing gym almost every morning before I sat down to write enabled me to focus and build mental stamina. I would beat any frustration and blockage I may have woken up with that morning on a heavy bag. Whatever form of exercise you choose, working out the mind, body and spirit is the ultimate expression of respect for one’s own craft. Trust me: exercise is the gift that keeps on giving.

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

CEPEDA: I’m working on a proposal for my next book, a memoir about gentrification, and I’m in the latter stages of production on my current documentary film, Deconstructing Latina. The paperback of Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina will be coming out in February 2014. That’s great news, especially because my hardcover was a casualty in the recently settled dispute between my parent company Simon & Schuster and Barnes & Noble. I’m hoping that the softcover will have an easier flight in capturing its audience. I’m also working closely with an educational specialist from the Robert F. Kennedy Center on a curriculum that would go hand in hand with Bird of Paradise, a project which I am excited about.

Author Contact:
@raquelcepeda
http://www.djalirancher.com
Photo Credits:
Heather Weston and Djali Brown-Cepeda

An Interview with Eamonn Wall

The first thing I ever learned about Eamonn Wall had nothing to do with his poetry and everything to do with his generosity. In his role as guest editor of Natural Bridge, a literary journal published by the University of Missouri, St Louis, he included one of my short stories in a special edition on exile. Without that boost in confidence, I might very well have put aside my writing. Eventually, I learned that the rhythm of a generous heart and eye run through every line he writes. And here is one of my favorites, “Returning to Dublin,” a poem in The Crosses:

To return in summer                 picture of the book The Crosses
to a suspended city and know 

there will be no end 
to daylight so long as summer 
holds over the Liffey, 

    so long 
as the gates remain open
to the heart of evening

    so long
as the last bus is held
by a single hand
and one long, dry kiss.

picture of Eamonn WallA native of Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, Ireland, Wall has lived in the US since 1982. He is the Smurfit-Stone Professor of Irish Studies and Professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and has written six books of poems: Sailing Lake Mareotis (2011); A Tour of Your Country (2008); Refuge at De Soto Bend (2004); The Crosses (2000); Iron Mountain Road (1997); and Dyckman-200th Street (1994). All six were published by Salmon Publishing in Ireland. His poems have also appeared in a number of journals, including The Shop, Poetry Ireland Review, Cyphers, West47, TriQuarterly, Crab Orchard Review, South Dakota Review, River Styx, The Recorder, New Hibernia Review, Eire-Ireland, and Nebraska Review. His essay collection, From the Sin-e Café to the Black Hills, was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2000 and awarded the Michael J. Durkan Prize by the American Conference for Irish Studies for excellence in scholarship. His poetry and prose have appeared in a number of anthologies; specifically, The Book of Irish-American Poetry from the 18th Century to the Present; Irish Writing in the 20th Century: A Reader; Wexford Through Its Writers; Flood Stage, An Anthology of St. Louis Poets; and The Big Empty, Contemporary Nebraska Nonfiction Writers. His next collection, New and Selected Poems, will be published by Salmon in 2014.

 

picture of the book From the Sin-e Cafe to the Black Hills                     picture of the book Sailing Lake Mareotis                    book cover Writing the Irish West

 

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

WALL: What gets me thinking about poems the most is being out of doors walking or being indoors sitting quietly. In these two situations, the first more so than the second, my body and mind are guided toward composition. I hear sounds, lines come to me, memories flood in, and I begin to experience being in the world at a deeper level. Reading can also take me to this place and listening to music. In such situations, I am not distracted by nonsense or static and reminded again that I am a writer whose job is to write. To discover the world by writing about it. To communicate with an audience. But, being the eldest of eight children who grew up in a noisy and lively household, I have learned how to write, and to read, anywhere. I work most productively in two or three hour bursts.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process? How do you move from idea to poetic line?

WALL: I am an old-fashioned pen and paper poet. If I have an idea, if something catches my ear or eye, if I hear something said, or read something in a book, I will sit down and write a rough draft. I might achieve some result quickly, or, more often than not, it will take time to articulate or shape the idea. Later, I’ll go back to the notebook and add some material. Eventually, I’ll type and revise the poem. At times, these various revisions can take a few years though this is generally not the case. One thing I have learned though is that countless revisions don’t always make the poem work better. This is the idea we used to describe in Ireland as flogging a dead horse. Nowadays, this is not a politically correct comment. A student said to me once: “Why would anyone want to flog a horse–dead or alive?” I understood immediately that she was right.

Though the first draft is the most important one for me, it’s the poem’s foundation, I greatly enjoy the whole drafting process, the revisions leading me in fresh directions of discovery. It’s a kind of magic. I am very happy and quite mellow when I am working on a writing project. The key aspect in writing poems is form, in my case. Working in free-verse means being in search of the correct form for the material. I am guided by voice, breath, sound, and flow more than anything. At other times, I will be guided by more traditional metres or by assonance and alliteration. There’s a lot of back and forth, give and take, and a great deal of asking of the poem to give up the secret of its shape. I am pretty patient. Lots of things frustrate me in the world but not writing. Even when it’s hard, it’s cool. And I feel this way about prose-writing too. Even when it’s difficult, I feel I am making some progress. If a poem fails, I have learned something and not wasted time. If I want to waste time I watch CNN or Law and Order!!

HUERGO: As an Irish poet who has lived in the US for so many years, what is the significance of landscape in your writing? What is the relationship for you between landscape and identity?

WALL: Place and landscape are important for me. Always in my mind’s eye are the various landscapes of Co. Wexford where I grew up in Ireland: the town streets, the river, the mountains, and the sea. The land in Co. Wexford is the richest in Ireland for mixed agriculture: I see the barley being blown about and the cows and sheep quietly engaged. But I learned to become a writer in America, and American urban landscapes (New York and St. Louis, in particular) are important. Also, I have traveled in the American West and written about it a great deal. I dream about it. I have been formed by landscape: Irish and American. Because I carry it with me wherever I go, I do not actually miss being in Ireland. I see my identity in landscape and vice versa. As an immigrant, I have two landscapes–the Irish and American–and as a person who has moved around the US, I have multiple identities and landscapes. I am defined by multiple allegiances.  I am like many people in the contemporary world. This is an aspect of the richness that we, the immigrants, give to America. At my core, I often think, that being an immigrant is what actually defines me best. People ask me: “Are you Irish or American or Irish-American?” I say take your pick. I am happy with all three. Sometimes, I imagine that I am none of the above, that I am, for example, a man wearing a hat working on a Mexican farm or an Angolan fisherman hauling in the catch.

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

WALL: Many people have made it possible for me to follow this life path. My parents always encouraged me and never made me feel that reading was an inferior and anti-masculine activity. They had great faith in education and were happy when I was reading and writing. Of course, they worried about what sort of future (income, job) a writer might have and were happy, and maybe a bit surprised, when it led to me getting a job. Though it was as a traditional academic that I got a job. For them, all things were connected and that’s how I see it too. My father was a journalist and my mother is a retired businesswoman. Neither of many parents had college degrees but this in no way curtailed their intelligence. Always curious, forward-thinking, funny, full of deep faith and a fine sense of the absurd, with a wealth of wisdom to pass along. Ours was a house of songs and stories, and so a good nurturing space for a would-be writer.

This year, I edited two volumes of Irish poet James Liddy’s essays On American Literature and Book Cover On Irish Literature and IdentitiesDiasporas and On Irish Literature and Identities for Arlen House/Syracuse University Press. James Liddy was the friend and teacher who helped me get a scholarship to come to the US to graduate school, and this was the making of me as a writer.

Friends and family provide great help when we know that they are wishing us well, when they remind us that the work we do is important. As a writer, I find this kind of community important. In my case, because I am not part of a creative writing program, I rely on various friends and colleagues scattered across the US and Ireland.

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

WALL: I have two current projects. One is a volume of New and Selected Poems to be published in 2014-2015. At the moment, I am working on the new poems. I’m also working on a prose book exploring connections between Ireland and America. A few of the chapters have been published–on Rory Gallagher, the late, great Irish blues guitarist and songwriter, and on the poet Michael Coady–while others exist in draft form. I’ll add some chapters on my own experience as an immigrant in America and on immigrants in Ireland, a recent and an important phenomenon resulting from the Celtic Tiger of recent times. This book, like my first prose book, From the Sin-e Café to the Black Hills: Notes on the New Irish (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), will be a multi-genre book incorporating creative non-fiction and literary criticism, and perhaps some fiction too. But New and Selected Poems comes first.

On the back burner is fiction. I wrote and published short-stories in the early 1990s but stopped because I knew that I could not be a poet, scholar, and fiction writer as well as being a husband, parent, and a college teacher trying to figure out the tenure system in a strange country. But I have a little more time now that our children are grown and a leave is coming up, so I might give fiction another go. During the Spring semester of 2014, I will be Heimbold Chair in Irish Studies at Villanova University.

 Author Contact:

http://www.eamonnwall.net/

An Interview with Doritt Carroll

book cover for GLTTL STP

If you ask her, Doritt Carroll will tell you that she is (unfortunately) a lawyer and (fortunately) the mother of two daughters.  She received her undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University. Her collection In Caves was published in 2010 by Brickhouse Books.  Her poems have also appeared in a long list of publications, including Coal City Review, Poet Lore, Nimrod, Slipstream, Rattle, The Baltimore Review, and the Journal of Formal Poetry. Her poem “motherlove” appeared in the Fuck Poems anthology by Lavender Ink.  Her book Glttl Stp will be published in September 2013. Ilse Munro write of this latest volume that “Carroll’s control and precision reveal aspects of the human condition that would leave a lesser poet running from the room, screaming.” Lorraine Whittlesey describes Carroll’s voice as “uniquely honest,” a voice that employs “Picasso’s and Miles Davis’s understanding of the importance of the space between objects.”

HUERGO: What moves you to write? picture of Doritt Carroll

CARROLL: I don’t know if I’m exactly answering your question, but when I write, I’m having a conversation.  I want someone to see something I’ve seen, in the way that I’ve seen it.  Often, I’m writing to someone who wouldn’t actually listen if I called them up to describe it.  And, to be fully frank, I’m often imagining that if I write something good enough, people will be proud of me, people who could never be proud of me in real life.

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

CARROLL: I think i’m different from other poets.  I’m not a good reviser.  If I get myself in a position in which extensive revisions are necessary, I may never finish the poem.  It’s almost as if, by writing it down, I’ve painted myself into a corner.  So when I get an idea, I try NOT to write it down or even say it out loud.  Instead, I arrange it and change it completely in my mind.  I only start writing when I’m pretty sure it’s in the right form, and only minor alterations, such as line breaks or avoiding the repetition of a word, will be needed.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work?  Why?

book cover for In Caves CARROLL: I think I have trouble writing a poem that isn’t about isolation.  It’s the theme of my existence.  I was a late in life child of troubled parents.  If I think about myself as a child, I’m always alone with a book or a doll.  Even in the middle of a crowd, I will often stop to notice how the essential parts of ourselves never meet, never interact.  I think true human contact and understanding between two people is almost a myth.

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

CARROLL: Gerry Connolly was my first real teacher. She taught me that, when I’ve painted myself into a corner, it’s often helpful to read others who have written on the same topic, or in the same way, to see how they solved the problem. In more recent years, I can’t say enough about Clarinda Harriss.  She has been editor, mentor, publisher, and indefatigable reader of emailed drafts.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?                                                      “everything good  is in the things / that we don’t say”

CARROLL: “Throw grenades at your clichés! Your goal in writing should be to make us see an ordinary subject in a completely new way. Make your reader say, “Well, I’m never going to look at that in the same way again.” 

HUERGO: What are you working on next?

CARROLL: Unlike others, who write a book and then find a title, I find a title, and it tells me what book to write.  The book I just finished is called GLTTL STP (glottal stop), a term that refers to choking off sound briefly when singing.  The minute I thought of that title, I knew I would write a book about things withheld, things not said.  The next title, and I have just started working on this, is Sorry You Are Not an Instant Winner.  We’ll see where that title takes me.

Author Contact:

http://brickhousebooks.wordpress.com/tag/doritt-carroll/

 

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

 

 

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)