I recently read and posted on Heather Fowler's most recent collection of short stories, her wonderful Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness. Here are some of my thoughts on her collection
"Sometimes I feel a great depth of sadness in accepting the fact that there are many wonderful writers I will one day end my reading life never having even heard about, let alone read. I am very glad that Heather Fowler will not be among them. There are seventeen delightfully disturbed and disturbing stories in the latest of her four collections of short stories (I hope to read them all in 2014). All are first rate and some just amazed me. Heather Fowler loves the short story and it shows in her work.
I find posting on collections of shhort stories a very daunting and challenging task. Reviewers (which I am not, I just read stuff and post on it) seek overriding themes and concerns over different works often first written with no plan to place together in a collection.
In the past I have used a kind of forest metaphor to describe collections of short stories. Some forests are perfect for a weekend in a cottage, others for exploring the tropics. I see the forest of the stories of Fowler as not far from a once great civilization, now on its final stage of collapse into anarchy and chaos. Few of the residents, and almost none of the elite classes, have any sense of this. Mental illnesses become the norm, plagues take hold, the poor begin to lust for vengeance, the affluent seek escape in sensation. In the wake of this some begin to retreat to the forest, but for many who flee it is too late.
My bottom line is a total endorsement of Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness to all lovers of the form, especially those with a fondness for the darker side of life."
Heather also kindly recently contributed a beautiful post to The Reading Life on a topic dear to my heart, the wonders of the short story.
Heather Fowler is the author of the story collections Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness; This Time, While We're Awake; People with Holes; and Suspended Heart. Fowler’s work was named a 2012 finalist for Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction. She received her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University. Her stories and poems have appeared in:PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South,Feminist Studies, The Nervous Breakdown, and others. Please visit her website:www.heatherfowlerwrites.com
I greatly thank Heather for her very well considered illuminating answers. The session contains lots of excellent reading suggestions. I really urge everyone to read this. I am very proud to have this on my blog.
I will be allowed the honor of sharing at least two of her stories with you so please look for them soon.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your writing routine. Do you typically set aside a certain period to write, always write in same place, do you listen to music while you write, do you need solitude to write?
A: My writing routine is rather complicated by book promotion and single-parenthood in the last four years. I used to write daily, something, often many somethings. Now, however, I find I must write so much in terms of promoting books or participating in good literary citizenship (I run an interview series and am also an editor), while also meeting employment and parenting obligations, that I often only get odd windows to frequent personal creative spaces. I do a lot of editing of previous work these days—and often long to run off into the woods and be left alone to begin new projects.
When I have a fascination or a project that compels me enough, though, when the duty can be put aside, I write it through obsessively. One example is a book of alexandrine sonnets I wrote as pair pieces for Lorca’s poems a couple years ago. I wrote a whole book of poems in six weeks. I’m hoping for a long push to work on the five projects mapped in a recent post on craftat my RedRoom blog. Not sure when that will come.
Q: If you could give your eighteen year old self one suggestion, what would it be?
A: Your heart will be broken many times; never forget that, in a woman’s life, maintaining her female friendships will be the key to survival—these can be the anchor when your men go astray; also remember that everyone whose actions reflect that they love you is a gift. Treat them reverently and show gratitude with respect.
Q: "…in the name of a humanism hypocritically turned champion of the reader’s rights. Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favour of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
What is your reaction to these very famous lines from "The Death of the Author" by Roland Barthes?
HF: I love Barthes. Such a provocateur! This isn’t my favorite of his texts, which is A Lover’s Discourse, but I’m interested in “The Death of the Author” since its focus is actually the significance of the reader’s experience—a good thing for writers to ponder—and the spurious nature of allowing the biographical life of the author to define the terms and mode of discussing that art. Barthes champions the idea that art has a continuously evolving and interactive relationship with the consumer, that the reader herself creates the experience of what the art does—especially and most often when the “Death of the Author” means the author disappears for the purpose of readerly interactivity, when the refusal to view the work via analysis of the author’s life enters.
I like when Barthes says about readerly interaction, “Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author.” In other words, without the reader, books are meaningless.
They are the silverware and meals without diners.
Barthes waxes dramatic with his need to assign a symbolic death to the author’s presence to legitimate the premise that reading and experience from literature is far more collaborative than we frequently discuss. He suggests that texts grow unnaturally limited when they must be aligned with causal historical premises. I think his points on the significance of what the readers alone bring to the text are entirely valid, but I’m torn.
In counterpoint, literary criticism has helped me explore elements of literature I would have otherwise never known. As a reader and writer, I love how texts without interpretation create interesting questions or impulses to move from creatively, ways of claiming art for readers with more open guidelines, but I also feel that reading literary criticism that explains and demystifies relationships between an author’s life and work can both take something away and give something new to the reader, a perspective on how history creates meaning or a prime view into what impacted that author and led him/her to create his/her body of work.
It’s a mixed bag how relevant this can be, especially when poor behavior is a factor. On the one hand, I loved understanding more about Sylvia Plath and how her life informed her work; this created complexity and clarity in terms of her impulses for me; on the other hand, when something is fictional, or pure poetry or story, and the author has acted egregiously in his/her reallifetime toward others, it’s much easier for me to enjoy the work without biography. As in the case of Kafka, regarding his damaged relationship with Felice Bauer, vis a vis how it was thought to have inspired “The Trial,” too much information about an author can kill my love for the work, greatly dim my enthusiasm for topic.
I would rather have never known, for example, that Kafka treated that Bauer woman so poorly, strung her along, and caused her so much pain. I lost respect for him as a man, which has permeated every piece of his work I encounter. I find myself choosing against picking up his work. The same thing happened for me when I read about Kierkegaard, his cruelty, his bizarre treatment of a former love. Interestingly, the available criticism about Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” however, had the opposite effect. It made the work more fascinating, especially regarding considering her relationship to her religious faith and brother Dante Gabriel.
But, as an author—I am happy to die many, many times for the reader, happy for the reader to find herself or himself in my text and not go looking for me. I am present and absent in every original text. The reader will find plenty of my authentic emotional tides, but few of my actual details. Perhaps, I’m truly Barthes’ daughter in that way, visible and invisible.
Q: UNCHARTED LIVES is a fascinating study by gay psychotherapist Stanley Siegel and straight Newsday columnist Ed Lowe Jr. The text is a mass analysis of how gay men develop through the eight male life passages from 'pre-emergence' to 'mentorin'’. The book is the result of numerous interviews and research. This data is balanced with Siegel's own dramatic mid-life coming out story. When asked why such a seemingly disproportionate number of creative men are gay this was Siegel's response—" I think that because gay men live in a society that is hostile to them, because they are oppressed, have few role models, and in most cases have no legal rights or institutions that support and honor us we became extraordinarily inventive in the ways we live our lives. The process of become gay, of accepting one's sexuality, is a process of living an extremely original life. The apparatus of a creative life begins early, when we feel we are different in some way but have no language to explain the difference. Young gay boys feel that almost always and consequently they often isolate themselves or are isolated by the outside world. Isolation presents a creative world. Sometimes in fantasy we deal with separation by becoming highly productive—drawing, writing, creating. Usually this stays with the person the rest of their life and is only enhanced by the challenges they meet later on."
My question is do you think he is onto something? Is the creativity of Gay men derivative from growing up without role models, from having to create a sense of self?
A: I think that gay men and most women who don’t assume the patriarchal model for their lifestyles have similar experiences, that becoming a part of what most people consider “other” binds all individuals who are subject to judgment by society, and yes, I do think creating a sense of self that is unique to and suited to oneself is almost a mandatory process when you are excluded from purported “normalcy.”
Regarding role models, what I think many gay men have in common when they seek role models (that feel permissive to their lifestyle choices) is that they must look outside the family into which they were born and find examples of those with whom they can align. They must cast a larger net and put themselves in the world in such a way where art and culture are often absorbed to find a “new family” of likeminded.
The concept of being orphaned or “other” from blood relationships can create alternate self-definition that has spectacular results in arts and literatures, new fusions, exciting outcomes. But I do feel that gay men, gay women, straight women who don’t follow the nuclear family marriage and children expected paradigms, minority authors and artists, have similar struggles with making their own cherished places in the world. They must make their places to thrive.
It’s like Anais Nin says, “Had I not created my whole world, I would certainly have died in other people’s.”
Q: "It is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art"–from "Against Interpertation" by Susan Sontag
As a writer, how do you feel when people interpret your work, attribute meaning to it?, see things in it you never thought about? Who is your ideal reader?
A: I love interpretation because it’s like free analysis of varying proximity to what I see myself exploring with my work. I often tell friends that having a new book release tells me a lot about my reflection to the outer world, or, conversely, the inner world of the reviewer (in particular). Many times I’m shocked and delighted with which aspects are honed in on—and I then enjoy the reader’s reaction to my text and consider what directions their visions or perceptions might take me next. Do I agree with their assessment of my themes? Shall I begin new work that furthers what they envision in what I do?
Since I don’t journal and remain incredibly private, however, I think my readers will remain quite free in assuming Barthes’ “dead author”/free reader space, likely even posthumously.
I hate memoir. I love talking about ideas. I am not important, so much as my expression.
Q: It seems more and more writers have MFAs in creative writing, some PhDs. Education is a great thing but is there a negative side to this; will it produce, in few years, a literary culture where lacking this degree will make it hard to get published? Is it homogenizing writing styles? Will the day of the amateur writer who comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this? Does it give you pause to know the University of Iowa M A in writing scholarships for students from outside the USA, were for years funded by the C. I. A?
A: I don’t think lacking a degree makes publishing hard. I think one of the best things the prestigious MFA programs do for their students is to connect them with top tier publication credits via famous faculty, which is like a shoo-in for an actual book advance (priceless), but I don’t think the well-situated, wealthy without degrees have any trouble either. It’s about class and clout.
Publishing without connections is what’s hard, regardless of academic path, or speaking to the language of business and sales.
An MFA and whether you want one should have to do with personal decisions regarding lifestyle and employment possibilities. If you don’t want to teach, for example, there are other ways of being a writer that don’t require an institutional affiliation. The sad thing about the extreme proliferation of MFA programs across the country is that, 1. They aren’t all created equal in terms of student rewards, and 2. there isn’t a job market that can offer decent jobs to even a fraction of the graduating students each year, and many students will linger indefinitely in debt.
It is as it always was, degree or otherwise—which doesn’t make it right—the “amateur writer” only “amateur” due to his/her duration of creative growth while also functioning as canary in the day-job work mines (or due to geographical estrangement from those who might help him/her), can make it, but only with working ten times harder to get the work seen, using ten times more elbow grease, and possessing a great capacity to rule out the despair of uncompensated labor (i.e. writing for years without fiscal remuneration).
Still, it does no good to be bitter. I do think, though, that when the disadvantaged break through after years of back-breaking work, their work ethic puts them in good stead, creates hope for others struggling to be heard.
I’ve worked hard for twenty years, for example. If this were about money, I’d have quit—I’d have quit after my first book and burned the rest, yet I hope that if I have a book to release one day that rockets to the top of charts, that gets a nudge from a very visible source, that project will be a gateway to selling all my books that came before—and hope that such success will cause more critical attention toward and readerly interest in my earlier published work, which is underexposed. I used to see this this image on MySpace years ago that always made me happy to think about and rather exposed my philosophy on the whole thing. It was a photo on a rock ‘n roll band’s webpage that read in huge print “[BAND NAME], AN OVERNIGHT SUCCESS,” but below this, at the bottom of the image, in very small print, a caption read, “After twenty years of playing dive bars.”
Yes. After twenty years of dive bars or other relative obscurity.
RE Iowa and the C.I.A.—I was not surprised—but then governments always have secret programs, nefarious practices hidden by obfuscation and censorship via the media. There are so many ugly things in the political world: largely involuntary sterilizations in prisons for one; exploitation and/or hoarding of private information for two. The US government, right now, can blackmail any citizen into silence or supplication via how much information it accesses. It’s a scary thing. I saw a petition today trying to stop Facebook from “listening” via home microphones under the guise of a user-friendly application that I’d bet money is more about concealed surveillance at any hour.
But then, you are talking to a dystopia author. This Time, While We’re Awake, my third collection, makes some serious commentaries about governmental control and propaganda.
Q: How important is seeing different parts of the world to you in terms of stimulating your creativity?
A: I have travelled more in the last four years than I did for the rest of my life previous. I am not sure that travelling stimulates my creativity—since that is always on fire and writing is harder when I travel because I work best in a quiet environment when home, but I do think it stimulates my desire for life and experience, my appreciation of beauty and culture.
I was in Ireland last summer, for example, and while I wrote fairly little while there, my main objective was to open my eyes and see the landscapes, to chat with the people, or to watch the River Lee flow through Cork, to see the sights in Dublin or other excursions.
Q: Where can we find you online?
A: I am all over online. The best bet is my website. All social media links are there, as well as a list of publications: www.heatherfowler.com
Q: Besides reading and writing, what are some of your hobbies or interests?
A: I love to paint and to act. My main interests in my life right now, however, since I have young children, are the children. I want my daughter and son to become interesting, worthwhile people, to cultivate diverse hobbies and interests.
As the life wheel spins, it is their turn for the gift of my extra energy. As they age, I will take back more of my old selfish loves—but between children and work and other obligations, my time is quite full. They deserve and need my best time now. They are only children once.
Q: How and when did you begin to write?
A: I was a child. I began to write since I loved the experiences that the books I’d read could offer me. A quiet soul alone in her room finds solace in alternate worlds of others, could be the log-line. I read and read and then, from finding the worlds of others fascinating, I progressed to wanting to design them; writing as making a new creative space became my refuge.
My aesthetic was always informed by high romance, tragedy, stories of overcoming. This is because, in some ways, in the modern world, the idea of “hero” is so charged. I wanted to see more female “heroes" like I know in life. Another factor for me was that my mother is quite political. Often, as her child, I wanted to right the wrongs. It was part of my upbringing. I did not realize that it was unusual to, say, listen to the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., for pleasure and inspiration until many years later.
Anything that caused a strong emotional reaction became fuel for the pursuit of expression. Though I enjoyed painting and acting and other pursuits, reading and writing ended up as the types of activities that took the top tier of interest and made my views or voice manifest.
Q: How impacted is your creativity by the cycles of the seasons?
A: Not at all, or at least not in terms of weather. I mean the weather in my head is more relevant. Am I in love? Spring. Springtime in the stories. Am I in pain? A torrent of snow. Starvation. Death. The emotional state creating mood. Now, if your question addresses seasons of maturity or actual decades, certainly the work is affected by more life experience.
Of late, I find my work matures to have more empathy—the more I’ve suffered, the more I reflect. A shattered soul casts long shadows, one might say. I see now that everyone suffers.
There is no longer an illusion in my thinking that says that outer indications of success mean perfectly happy lives. We are all so flawed, so fragile. I get this concept now in a way that was muted before by envy or ignorance.
Such awareness makes me gentler as an individual, the questions about perspective and lifestyle status more subtle and nuanced.
Q: Who are some of your favorite contemporary short story writers, poets or novelists? What classic writers do you find your self drawn to reread. If a neophyte writer in your primary focus were to ask you who to read, what might you suggest?
I often say, “I read dead people,” because I’ve been drawn to older literature and due to limited free time, will often select an author I’ve long loved rather than taking a chance on a new one. That said, my reading of journals or articles about new writers tempts me into modern landscapes.
Who do I love to read—who to recommend? In terms of contemporary authors—Anne Carson is recommended with a burning love because her genre hybridity, dense prose, and poetic sensibility. Margaret Atwood, I recommend for the same reason, although I like following the arc of Atwood’s career as the years go by since she’s been so fiercely free to experiment and her voice, for me, has long been that of an explorer.
Etgar Keret’s stories entice me since his short work is wild and free. I wish I could read his stories in Hebrew. Alas, I can only read translations.
Alice Munro fascinates, certainly, since her expression of romantic eroticism lures me, especially the way she depicts the fraught relationships of women in passionate love. I like her focused lens.
Murakami is one I like in long form, his novels speak to the lonely and the strange, very cerebral. This I adore.
When I want to read work that is “comfort food,” I pick up Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Shakespeare, Kafka, whatever first stirred me while reading. I’m a Lorca fan, too, a Neruda fan. Plath. Occasionally Ovid. Sappho. I read Aristotle for philosophy as well. I’m all over the board.
This is not a comprehensive list. Ask me this question tomorrow and the authors may differ. What I really love to read is any author who expresses passion. Cold fish don’t compel me.
But for a neophyte reader, I would not recommend the work I have dearly loved. I would ask his or her interests and tailor my recommendations to match his/her hypothetical aesthetic. For each reader, there must be a gateway. If reading is not yet an addiction, the suggestion must be totally spot on as a lure into expanded reading of substance. I buy my son comic books for this very reason. Do I love them? No. Who cares? He does. He will move beyond. And he will read more if he gets into a habit of reading, of enjoying reading as a hobby.
Q: Frank O'Connor in The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story said short stories seem to be about marginalized people, the lonely, those with little voice in society. Do youthink he is on to something illuminating about the format? Why is there so much loneliness in the short story?
There is a lot of loneliness in life. I think all art forms speak to this—love songs, poems, novels, etc. Stylistically, however, the story has a compact means of magnifying its emotional pulse while the novel has room to meander. What you get with the short form is the burst of unadulterated sentiment, minus 286 additional pages of happenings to dilute its intent.
I read a story and whatever its primary impulse becomes manifest within one short window, start to finish. That said, I don’t think the short story speaks to marginalized people any more than the novel does—since the novel is often about also about voices of other. I’m thinking Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. What I think differs is the medium of conveyance, the way that the short story sends its missive, comparably, like a text message in caplock: I AM LONELY, DIFFERENT, SCREWED OVER, AND IN PAIN; HELP!
The novel sends this message in waves, in a longer, more encompassing letter with much to distract from a solitary point. It has an envelope concealing the vast moments in which the reader is allowed to determine more impulses.
A novel is just as full of loneliness or disenchantment. Power and lack thereof. Marginalized and disenfranchised characters.
Q: I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of the regarded as great literature of the world is written in the colder temperate zones rather than in the tropics. How big a factor do you think the Irish Weather is in shaping the literary output of its writers? I cannot imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written on tropical island, for example.
Well, I can tell you one thing about climate: I live in sunny Southern California and I cannot think straight in the heat. That said, I think that before air-conditioning normalized interior living spaces, people certainly were more affected by climate—and still are in cases where they are snowed in or hampered from other activities.
In terms of self-discipline or desire to spend time in the writing chair, when we speak of serious weather, however, there is no doubt in my mind that when someone is snowbound, for example, or the roads are flooded with rain, the time out of time factor of nowhere to go, nothing to do, might make for an ideal environment where creativity is the escape.
But I think, with a lot of literature, how weather impacts survival can also be a key measure. If you take cultures where individuals are starving or freezing to death, confronting real life stakes politically or otherwise, this enters the work. I’m thinking Russian literature. I consider too how weather affects insect breeding climates and/or the spread of infectious disease—and there you have more issues coming into the equation, like in India or Africa.
With Irish literature, you have weather and politics. Is it the weather alone—probably no. But when we look at how weather affects agriculture, history, profitability of land, and the power structure, much fruitful inspiration can be found. Many intensive experiences for reflecting life in art.
I like how Joyce says in Ulysses, "It is a symbol of Irish art. The crackedlooking glass of a servant." Much of my art, too, is this cracked looking glass, or the mythical cracked mirror in Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott.”
Q: Many cultures are permeated with references to seemingly supernatural creatures, some kind, some malevolent. Do you feel any sense of these entities in the world you look out on in your daily life or in your writings? Do you sense a continuity between the natural and supernatural worlds. Is a belief in the supernatural just escapism and wishful thinking? Is the belief in occult systems the refuge of the powerless?
I’m actually working on a book of stories right now entitled The Erotic Cities of Ghosts, which parses the idea of “ghosts” via many filters. I’m interested in the larger concepts of spirituality and religion, the displacement of energy, the possibility of afterlife. I have no definitive answers, as I have not died in this world—but the act of considering the complexity of the soul, what creates identity, provides much to move from. I do believe in ghosts.
I don’t believe in fairies, exactly—though I love to write about them and particularly love fairy tale and myth as devices. I love symbolism.
But I also believe that the natural world has many marvels and sometimes our misperceptions of other phenomena can further spread an incorrect perception. As one example, there are creatures in the sea that would be labelled monsters if fully seen that have been considered mermaids. There are phenomena of light, like the Northern Lights, that encourage a belief in supernatural powers. People are looking for beauty and meaning—sometimes these pursuits can cause wild visions or imaginings.
Regarding the question of the occult, I do believe that people connected to fringe occult groups can be those who take refuge from the power of majorities—or from the restrictive protocols of less permissive associations. Decisive power or powerlessness, though, for me, is usually connected to fiscal ability or lack. The wealthy write history, control the media, decide which causes linger at the forefront of societal awareness. Those at the fringes write their alternate histories so as to have something with which to combat the dominant paradigm.
I am an artist with many friends in different spheres. I tend to take people as they arrive—caring less for their affiliations than their actions. Religion or affiliation is not a reductive factor for my friendships.
Q: These are loaded question coming from me, but with the decline of print reviews, are book blogs becoming more important? Professional critics have denigrated book bloggers as reviewers without credentials, book bloggers have replied professional reviewers just don't like bloggers doing for free what they ask money for doing. Reviewers do it formoney; bloggers for love. What is your reaction to this? Do you join book tours or send bulk mailings out asking for reviews?
A: I think that anyone doing reviews in these times is helping authors, so whenever reviewers are functioning, they are doing a good service. I also believe that readers themselves, spreading non-corporatized word of mouth, are vastly important. Word of mouth still helps, still sells books. Book bloggers and other venues where readers give such word online can be particularly helpful and important to those publishing with independent presses or titles not advocated by larger review venues.
If it weren’t for book blogs, online journal reviews, colleagues writing and sending reviews to various publications, for many talented authors under the radar, it would be quite hard to get any critical notice or attention. This is not to say that all readers will like the book or review it positively, regardless of where the review is posted, but it is to say that at least a conversation begins where other readers can determine whether or not they agree with each other—which books to fight for and champion among their reader friends, regardless of whether a huge review venue covered the title or not.
Just as an example, my first three collections were sent to Publisher’s Weekly, and ignored. This means that, as an independent author, I may have to write 4x, 5x, 6x the amount of content just for a chance at a single review, without even guaranteed coverage. While this does seem unfair, it’s true that if you are not part of the big corporate publishing establishment, as an author, you can be overlooked.
You do have to promote your work in many alternate venues. But to answer a complicated question more directly, for myself, for my work, I am grateful for every review and bit of notice that my work receives, whether this comes from the reader at home, simply enjoying the book and talking about it on GoodReads, or from a professional reviewer who chats it at a bigger venue like American Book Review or others.
Still, I don’t think most people reviewing books, anywhere, are in it for the money. There isn’t much money in it. Not enough to live on. So regarding each person anywhere who talks about books, paid or otherwise, when they are willing to spend time with literary work, I am heartened. I am grateful.
I also participate in blog book tours, like the tour for the newest release, and frequently give readings to promote the work.
Q: When you write, do you picture an audience or do you just write?
I am alone in the room and therefore my own audience. If there is a futurized audience I might project, and this would be imagined as a book releases, perhaps that audience would likely be intelligent women at one with my same wild aesthetic, my twisted sense of humor, my deep care for gender and environmental issues.
I say women—but this just goes to show what little accuracy a writer can have about where the work will draw a fan base. Thinking on it now, I realize I’m often surprised by who comprises my actual audience because many men actually enjoy and champion my work, for example. I do not write for them directly, would’ve thought my content would’ve chased them away—but I have surprisingly many male readers.
I love that. It makes me happy.
Q: Assuming this applies to you, how do you get past creative "dry spells," periods when you have a hard time coming up with ideas or when things seem futile?
Writing is my escape, which is why I don’t believe in writer’s block. If anything, my “dry spell” would be a period of great joy, which I would welcome wholeheartedly. If my pen is quiet, all is well. When things seem futile, when thing seem bleak, when life has fallen apart, the ink flows like a river. If someone really wanted to shut me up, they would be advised to make me unbelievably happy.
Let’s not all hold our breath at once.
Q: If someone says to you, "I prefer to live life, not just read about it" what is your reaction inside? (Besides cringing!)
My reaction inside is to say—thank you for bringing whatever you love, outside of reading books, to a high level of focus. The world needs different people. I cheer for the bridge-builders, the athletes, the musicians, the fine artists, the singers, the inventors, and the dancers.
The person said “not just” read about life, right? They’re okay. I like this person you describe above much better than someone who would say, “So, guess what? I hate reading. So boring. I also hate smart people who like to read. Oh, and women. Hate them too.”
That latter person would really bother me.
Q: What are the last three novels you read? Last three movies? Do you have any favorite TV shows? Are there literary works you find reverberate in your mind in happy or in dark times?
A: I’ve been reading books of stories, poetry, and articles lately, rather than novels. I think the last novel I chose to read was Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. The last three movies I watched were movies for my children. I don’t have time to watch television, though I aspire to the leisure of having some series to enjoy. I’ve been focused on reading Ezra Pound right now. Mainly because I’ll be doing an intensive study of Modernist Poets this summer. That takes up much time.
Yes, there are works that reverberate in happy or dark times, but I find that which works these are depend on the people connected to the emotive state experienced. In other words, one dark time might connect to a specific individual’s aesthetic who is inexorably connected, in memory, to that time—the same for happy thoughts or connected ideas; everything, for me, is attached to people, what they evoke.
12. William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons.” I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by Spanish or American Rulers. How has the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, shaped Irish literature? In America it seems somehow the best short stories writers like Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers, all writers admired by Irish authors, had their sensibilities shaped by the defeat of the south in the American Civil War. Feel free to apply this to your heritage.
Writing about victory is propaganda. As beautiful as it may be, it is a reconstruction of someone else’s terror. Writing about suffering, about isolation, about powerlessness and ostracism, about charged and painful dynamics—that’s where you tap universality.
Not everyone experiences being on the top-side of a power dynamic, but everyone knows loss. For me, such expression is not about heritage to a past war or struggle directly, so much as human empathy and the way an author’s trials created strength and art. I love these Southern women you name because of how they fought the dominant paradigms for women’s roles in their specific generational times and because of how, against the odds, they achieved high recognition denied to many female writing peers.
In Flannery’s case, however, I think it was her Lupus that impacted her willingness to tell her truth so boldly (proximity to death), her Catholicism (devout faith and contrast with those who use religion as a tool for their enrichment), her place in the world during her time in the civil rights struggles (the way she saw African Americans treated when and where she lived). The race struggle had its roots in the earlier history—but for me, her work is powerful because ofmultiple factors.
Q: If you could live anywhere in the past for six months, or forever, and be rich and safe, where would you pick and why?
A: I would not want to live in the past, knowing what’s available here and now. If I were rich and safe, these two things alone would be so new that I think any place could have its own recommendations.
To take a small liberty here, I think a more interesting question would be: If you could be anywhere forever, rich and safe, or live in relative poverty with a lasting romantic love and good health, which would you choose?
I would choose the latter. Love and health trumps wealth.
Q: Are you open to e mail, Facebook or Twitter, contact with your readers or do you fear stalkers or don't want to be bothered?
I am open to readers contacting me on social media, but cautious. Still, I really enjoy new discourse with those who read my work. It’s a lovely thing.
Q: A while ago I read and posted on a long biography of Hart Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many known of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors—he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him—so if Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in Ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read? One of the most referenced poets by Irish writers last year was Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life. Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life? Why so much seeming admiration for writers like Jack Kerouac and others who died way to young from alcohol abuse? If Ezra Pound had not gone mad, would he still be a role model for the contemporary poet? (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.). Some of this may just be a story about a poet with a stable marriage, a job and no substance issues may seem dull compared to wilder lives.
There’s something going on right now in the American literary culture that romanticizes alcoholism, living fast, suicide by drugs or choice. I’m not a fan of this, yet I think many authors have wild lives when young because many in the arts and humanities crave experience.
Authors tend to want windows of hedonism, deeply felt, deeply experienced—high highs and low lows. There’s a light and a dark side to being sensitive and creative.
I think suicide for some was inexorably connected to addictions or mental illnesses—these same things that likely reduced their inhibitions and allowed them to write what matter they produced. But I don’t think drinking or drugging ever made anyone a better writer. I don’t think suicide makes people famous who weren’t already talented enough for fame. In my first collection, Suspended Heart, I have a whole story that speaks to the fame question entitled “Cock Sculpting.”
About why writers write about vices, I think it’s because all readers enjoy reading about the complexities of explored experience—especially of the risky, unusual variety. In a certain way,sometimes authors and artists are like the stuntmen in Hollywood. They go through dangerous acts without named credit first, and then their presence can be seen via the final product. Writing about being on drugs, for example, is not necessarily best to do while actually on drugs. Better to experience it. Get sober. Write it. The writing is then only a reflection of the memory, but a better articulated one.
I am lucky I’ve never had such a terrible addiction as Coleridge or others whose lives were destroyed by vices or depression. About Hart Crane—suicide didn’t make his path and short stay brighter or better. I think we would have seen more excellent work from him had he rested here longer. Take Virginia Woolf's path; while her eventual death was a suicide, she wrote many books before she killed herself. Couldn’t Hart Crane have made a larger canon like her? All the deaths before much art was made are tragic. Look at Buckley in music. Cobain.
About Pound, as I mentioned above, I’m studying his work right now. It is a shame that his besmirched reputation destroyed his likeability for many potential readers, particularly his embrace of anti-Semitism, which he later recanted. But he also espoused the sort of deep and wide learning, polyglot intellectualism that has gone out of vogue now because so many contemporary poets are content with just one language—barely that… He could be quite persuasive and passionate in his views about literature. I’ll be studying his Cantos and Personae in Italy this summer, hearing lectures by his daughter. I’ll have more to say about this issue when this summer concludes.
Q Is a certain amount of suffering good for a writer?
A: Dear God, good for the writer? No. It’s terrible. Horrible. Painful. I wish I had never laid eyes on it. Suffering is awful. Pull the knife from my back.
But is it good for the work? A whole different question.
Those who haven’t suffered don’t seem to have much of interest to say.
Q: Have you attended creative writing workshops and if you have share your experiences a bit please.
A: I have done many workshops—undergraduate, graduate, online, etc. My experience of workshop has varied with each place I’ve been.
I know, when I teach, I prefer a workshop where the one who comments keeps their feedback to the essentials. I like to hear one positive aspect, one negative (not working) aspect, and one question from each reader for each author. The workshop can sometimes feel like too many cooks in the kitchen otherwise. I’ve seen programs where line-edits must be done for other authors and I while I think these can improve an author’s submitted work quite a bit, I think the faculty guidance about how to do them (for those critiquing) and what to gain from them (for those receiving) is quite key to whether or not the work is worth the effort for both parties.
When I first workshopped a lot of short work, at Coppola’s www.zoetrope.com after my undergraduate years, I learned a lot through workshopping with strangers, where their feedback was elective and often honest. I think his model is a good one for literary exchanges. Ratings, comments, and community.
I do prefer to work alone now, most often, when I don’t have necessary workshop formats to deal with, but I always appreciate the editors of my collections and extra eyes on my work. I ask trusted friends and colleagues. Feedback can be a great thing when you’re stuck or can’t bring a project to the next level.
Q: How many books do you think you’ll have published before you die?
Hmmm. Thirty or forty. I imagine about twenty books of stories and perhaps five or seven novels. Six or eight books of poems. A couple plays for theater. I imagine, on a really good day, that there will be “Collected Works” volumes and that these will take up a hefty place on the shelves of libraries. This is the dream.
But I’d be happy with two or three widely read books. It only takes one to bring the rest of your work into view for later scholars. File this under: Another important role of literary critics is to start new renaissances for literature buried by time, formerly ignored.
Q: Not long ago I was sent several very hostile messages from Irish writers demanding to know why I had posted on the works of other writers and not them. Some suggested I had been influenced by some sort of shadowy group to ignore their work. I was informed there is a small elite group who decides who gets reviewed, published or receives grants and it was also suggested they had sent me negative feedback on writers I should ignore. What is mentality behind this? Is there anything like a Literary Mafia within your area?
There is petty conduct, certainly. There is in-fighting. There are powerful groups of those who control which authors get into which large journals, receive grants, etc. But any blacklisting I’ve heard about usually goes on as a result of bad author conduct.
Any authors who write you with such demands or insults would be those on the black lists here.
I think the mentality behind the control exerted otherwise is that privilege serves privilege, so often, and there is sometimes an unspoken belief among those with power that others either with or affiliated with those in power are somehow more deserving. There is so much nepotism. And back scratching. Part of this seems reasonable—you want to help the people you know or who have helped you. That’s human nature. But I think that when help comes around that’s not quite “unbiased” it could also be, where I am, a sort of implied recognition that an author has become visible or has paid his or her dues when s/he achieves a new accomplishment heretofore barred. The fact is, if your work is received in a venue where it’s been promoted via a good reference, it will be treated better. If it comes blind, it will often have a smaller chance.
Still, I’ve found publishers in the US who have selected and worked hard to publish and promote my work—all of my three current publishers, where no previous close and personal relationships existed. The later friendships that resulted happened after the contracts, not before.
I hate the idea that you should receive coercion about who not to discuss, Mel. That must have been unsettling. It’s the principle that people should tell you who to promote that bothers me. I am glad you seem to be taking a stand to say what you will.
Q: One of the characters in Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, set in Mexico city and centering on poets, says that the main reason poets, nearly all male in Bolano's book, read at workshops is to meet the way disproportional number of women who come to them in search of a tortured soul to nourish. Is there truth in this? Why are attendees preponderantly female, or is that not true? Male writers, have you ever used the "troubled artist who feels too much" routine on women? Ladies, does this persona have an appeal to you?
Once, I may have wanted a tortured soul. When younger. Now, I find it whiney and irritating.
Do I think poetry can be used to woo, however? Yes. A vibrant yes. A man who can make a woman feel beautiful is magical. When he writes her a poem, he immortalizes her, makes her feel important.
Still, I think most women these days would prefer a poem-writing stockbroker to a simple poet—and then you have the female poets like me; we are hard to please. He can’t just be any male poet for me or someone who has written a ton of poetry; he must be one talented enough to make me sigh or gasp, at the very least not walk away in disgust—so not married, not too young, not gay, and not dead. This makes my pickings pretty slim.
I would rather not know a man writes poetry, however, than know he writes bad poetry. I regret this elitism, but confess it is mine. Actually, as long as he doesn’t think his bad poetry is good, a bad poet is fine; let’s hope he defines himself more by his other pursuits.
Q: Tell us a bit about your non-academic, non-literary work experience please. Tell us something about your educational background, please.
A: I have sold pizza, taken phone calls for security companies, worked temp jobs, worked retail, been a library clerk—I’ve done a ton of jobs that were solely for money. My day-job now pays my mortgage and allows me to support my children and write.
My educational background is that I earned a Master’s degree in creative writing from Hollins University and am working on picking up an M.F.A. from the University of New Orleans by the end of next year, seventeen years after my first Master’s degree, so that I can get a job as faculty member and take summers off to have more time for all my pursuits.
Q: Who are three dead or living writers you would like to do a q and a session with?
Q: Is the notion that someone is a writer of "Women's" literature just one step above calling their work chic lit? Statistics show that women read much more fiction then men;why is this so? Is it patronizing to refer to a work as a great work of literature by a woman, a gay, a person of color as no one ever seems to say War and Peace is a great white men's work?
A: I actually have several written articles on this very topic. May I direct your readers to one of my essays entitled, “The Literary Writer (Female) and Sex,” or to a recent piece called “How Munro Evades Classification as "Women's Fiction" -- Literary Women, Take Note”; both speak to “women’s fiction” and how I feel about that idea, but you’ll need to scroll down to find the post on the latter link.
Q: If you found out that a favorite writer of yours was grossly bigoted would you lose interest in them?
A: Yes, I would. Sadly—and unfortunately, I have experienced this directly. A writer I once adored, I no longer even read. His posts are blocked in my feed at every social network.
Quick Pick Questions
Tablets or laptops or smart phones?
E readers or traditional books?
American Fast Food- love it, hate it, or once and a while?
Both love it and hate it. It’s fine in a pinch.
Cats or dogs?
Both, but cats to own. Travel is murder and hassle when you have to pay dog kennels, etc.
Best city to inspire a writer- Paris, London, Dublin, or?
Where did the writer fall in love? That city. That city right there.
Walt Whitman or Willam Butler Yeats?
Yeats for beauty and linguistic control. Whitman for raw passion.
Roberto Bolano or Gabriel Garcia Marquez ?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez until I can read more Bolano.
Winter or Summer? Day or Night?
Winter by a fire, summer by a pool. Day for spring blooms, night for the stars.
Would you rather witness opening night for Waiting for Godot, King Lear, Playboy of the Western World or Ubo Roi?
Waiting for Godot—Beckett’s piece is funny. I need funny lately. Life has been too sad for too long.
Q: How important is it to you to have readers? Does it matter?
I think putting a measure on how important this is can be difficult. Would I like enough readers to make my life with my children easier? yes. Does it matter if practicing my art and the joy I receive from creating it are my only compensation from it until I die—not really. I have alternate employment. I would like to make my children’s lives better soon, though—so a nice lucrative sale with many readers receiving my work would be fantastic.
Q: From Paris Review Interview with Alberto Moravio in which he was asked to talk about the state of the Italian novel— "That’s a pretty large question, isn’t it? But I’ll try to answer. I think one could say that Italy has had the novel, way back. When the bourgeois was really bourgeois, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, narrative was fully developed (remember that all that painting was narrative too) but since the Counter-Reformation, Italian society doesn’t like to look at itself in a mirror. The main bulk of narrative literature is, after all, criticism in one form or another. In Italy when they say something is beautiful that’s the last word: Italians prefer beauty to truth. The art of the novel, too, is connected with the growth and development of the European bourgeoisie. Italy hasn’t yet achieved a modern bourgeoisie. Italy is really a very old country; in some ways it looks new because it’s so old. Culturally, now, it follows the rest of Europe: doeswhat the others do, but later. Another thing—in our literary history, there are great writers—titans—but no middle-sized ones. Petrarch wrote in the fourteenth century, then for four centuries everybody imitated him. Boccaccio completely exhausted the possibilities of the Italian short story in the fourteenth century. Our golden centuries were then, our literary language existed then, had crystallized. England and France had their golden centuries much later. Take, for example, Dante. Dante wrote a pure Italian, is still perfectly understandable. But his contemporary Chaucer wrote in a developing tongue: today he must be practically translated for the modern reader. That’s why most modern Italian writers are not very Italian, and must look abroad for their masters: because their tradition is so far back there, is really medieval. In the last ten years, they’ve looked to America for their masters."
My question is designed to draw responses - it seems literary cultures are strongly impacted by continuity. The literary culture of American seems to have much more shallow roots, to assume a less cultured audience. Contrasting Indian literature, which has older roots than any other culture, it seems to really begin about 1920. The continuity of Indian literature was destroyed by the British rule and writers at first had to use English formats. So what is a very old culture, has a shallowly rooted literary tradition less than 100 years old. Something similar happened in Ireland which has a new literary culture on top of cut off old roots? Question is just react to this, is it nuts or onto something about the differences in literary culture?
A: I think America gets a short “culturally able” shrift for a number of reasons (some quite deserved), first and foremost its short history, but I also think that the capitalistic culture and the public school systems play a role in damaging the perception of value the American public, in general, places on the fine arts. Many cultures where literacy and history are higher esteemed, where art is sacred, produce fascinating writers and artists whose expectation is to study a field for mastery because there is an association of honor and glory with belonging to an intelligent and valued artistic community, past and present, even if that means being fairly impoverished. In America, a large part of this culture idolizes the wealthy and attractive. Neither faction tends to be the most intellectually interesting, which is not to say that there aren’t fascinating people in both groups, but to love literature or frequenting arts museums, as opposed to the cinema blockbusters or pro sports scenes, already calls out an American minority. Then you have the religious right, who treat women as if no progress had been made for equal rights. You have the poor and/or the uneducated without access to culture. Add these factors to a dominant America media, owned by moguls, that wants to keep its citizens pliable, stupid, distracted from real news, and sheep-like.
Therefore, with what’s here, do many American artists and writers borrow from European masters? Yes, absolutely. We seek role models we can’t always find next door in the states.
This has to do with both how the country began (with criminals and religious zealots) and how little exposure to fine art the American public generally receives in its daily view or matriculated school curriculum. After all, you can see ads for dentists and bars and sports teams on the sides of cars and buses here, but very rarely do you see meaningful art splashed with huge ads for public circulation, unless it’s meaningful art commoditized, used to sell something else.
Q: How important is social media in the development of the career of writers? Do you have your own web page and if so why? Do you think it is good business savvy to post free samples of your work online? Can you estimate how many hours a week you are online?
I think social media is a necessary evil. On the one hand, yes, you can build a platform that way and so many people are online all the time that if you want their attention you have to go where they take their leisure. I have Facebook, GoodReads, Amazon, RedRoom, LinkedIn, and Twitter. I feel like social networking is mandatory, but I hate maintaining all of that. I just bought a membership to a program called HootSuite and I’ll try that out, but I dream of the day when someone else will handle my promotion to be honest.
I’d like to get offline for a good few years. I have a web page and much posted work on sites. I spend too many hours per week.
Q: I thought of a new question I wanted to ask. I know this is kind of a rambling question,it is designed to draw a similar styled response.
I think there is one sort of big difference between the reader and the writer. As you know, true reading is not passive but involves a creative process. Readers do read within a tradition, seeing works as part of a great conversation, part of a hopefully ever deeper culture, writers see themselves as starting from ground zero, without a conscious relation to a tradition. Also readers or especially reviewers, I am not a reviewer- I just post stuff- put a limit on a writer’s work when they talk about it or find meaning in it, thus breaking the writer’s sense of pure creation. A writer might well truthfully say, "I just write", but you cannot really just read.
Is there a built in divide between writers and readers? Is this is what the resistance to interpretation is at least in part about?
A: I imagine it like this: When I write a new story, I am dreaming the fictive dream. The texture is rich and full. The idea culminates into a piece and I love that piece initially—I dream it is great, all I wanted to accomplish, but that’s because the fictive dream in my head still fills in for the flaws or absences on the page. I can never really consider a story draft done until the dream is forgotten almost completely and I read the piece anew with fresh eyes.
Once I do that, I make what I call an “embroidery edit” where details I knew but didn’t share find their way into the textual reality of what the reader scans.
Since people are unique, each constructs his or her fictive dream a little differently when s/he receives language. The reading process is so interactive because someone, say, with a different background, will not construct the same imagining I might from my own text. His/her reading will be nuanced by his/her perceptions of the world and the use of language, object identification, and subtext.
For some writers, there may be a perceived divide between writers and readers. I don’t perceive one. I perceive a divide between people and their perceptions of the world as they know it—for which literature can work to continuously bridge a gap.
Again my greatest thanks to Heather Fowler for her wonderful answers. It is responses like hers that motivate me to keep blogging.
You will for sure see numerous more posts about her work on The Reading Life.
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