What aspect of the American South challenges or inspires your work?
There’s this reality show, Party Down South, which is essentially a redneck version of Jersey Shore. I love Party Down South; it’s a guilty pleasure. But I feel weird about non-Southerners watching it. There’s a side of me that doesn’t want people outside of the South to watch it. I worry that they don’t see it as satire of the South, but as the South itself. It’s a worry that extends beyond reality TV, to my writing, and to normal conversations at a bar, even. The South is a complicated, messy, wonderful place and it’s difficult for me to revel in that without making it seem like a joke to readers not from the South.
I am a Queens, NY native, but I had my first southern experience at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics with a horrible car wreck. A drunk driver destroyed the Volvo my boyfriend and I were driving in on our way home back to Queens. The Atlanta police and nurses were angels of salvation, transmuting the nightmare, and gently turning the injured over to a Greyhound and the 20 hour post-accident panic attack.
Upon examining the art of the classic southern artists that display the over-bright and saturated primitive or folk styles, I notice that at first you are taken in by the colors, (which I have tried to recreate with my painting), but if you look closer, character and emotion and tiny stories emerge in the expressions and loneliness of the subjects surrounded in the Southern American Strum und Drang of primary colors.
One of the hardest things about writing about the South is accurately capturing accents and dialects. My most recent essays seem to explore my parents’ personalities, and along with that comes their speech patterns. I have to work hard not to make them sound like stereotypes or caricatures of rural Southerners while, at the same time, trying to capture their uniqueness. And though I’m a writer (and reader) who prefers sparse dialogue, I find myself being even more critical of which and how many words they are allowed in the essay. Of course, all of this is important to me as an accidental Southern ambassador; sometimes it feels impossible to tell our stories correctly, and without judgement, from those who’ve never been embedded in Southern culture.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I’ve been to Birmingham in the UK, nearby Kings Heath, and the outlying Malvern Hills to see where JRR Tolkien spent his formative years. I’ve visited the Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway houses in Stratford-Upon-Avon and been to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome. I’ve read a Pliny letter near Mount Vesuvius, commemorated Catullus in Verona, and visited the Walter Scott, David Hume, and JK Rowling sites in Edinburgh. I’ve done a James Joyce-walk around Dublin. I’ve been to Cannery Row in Monterey, walked down Jack Kerouac/Adler in San Francisco, and visited Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West. I’d like to think my literary pilgrimage is never-ending.
I badly wanted to visit Herman Melville’s farmhouse in western Massachusetts called Arrowhead. It’s a beautiful place with a view of Mount Greylock, the highest mountain in the state. This is the place where he wrote Moby Dick. Not far from here, he made friends with Hawthorne. It all seemed so promising. But the friendship sputtered, the book was panned, and the farming wasn’t successful. Still it was a place where he created some of his best work.
Although I’ve already been on quite a few literary pilgrimages, there is one I still dream of making: The Moby-Dick Marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The marathon is a public reading of Moby-Dick out loud, straight through. It takes about 27 hours and is always held over the first weekend in January. Along with the reading there are lectures and Melville trivia contests and clam chowder. Reading the book in one crazy group marathon session at the historical center of New England’s whaling industry seems like a perfect way to celebrate the relentless pursuit at the heart of Melville’s epic tale. The reader spots for 2019 are already filled, but I’ve got hopes for 2020.
On our honeymoon in Maine, over a decade ago, I convinced my husband to travel with me to Concord, MA, to the place where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived, wrote, and is buried. I consider Hawthorne the first important American writer to look inward at the human heart, and his work has deeply influenced me. I wanted a photograph of me sitting at Hawthorne’s tiny desk at the Old Manse, but no photography was allowed. My husband tried to bribe the attendant into disappearing for a drink of water, but nothing doing. “Buy a postcard of it,” the young woman said. And so I did, though it didn’t begin to evoke the awe I felt looking at this shrine.
Our last trek of the day in Concord was to Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where some of the great American Romantics are buried: Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, and, of course, Hawthorne. Upon seeing his grave, spontaneously, I lay on my back on the earth in front of his headstone. I breathed deeply. “Now here’s the photo op,” my husband declared, snapping the camera. I couldn’t explain why then, nor to my students later when I’d tell the story as we read The Scarlet Letter. Maybe I hoped to absorb a tiny bit of the great writer’s essence. Yes, my students thought I was nuts, but it kept their attention.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
There wasn’t one shining moment in which the stars aligned and I knew I wanted to be a writer. However, when I was maybe seven or eight years old, my grandfather gave me an old Olympia Manual Typewriter complete with a teal carrying case and plenty of ribbon. I promptly emptied the entire contents of my bedroom closet and created my very own office. Squishing into the tiny space and pounding away on the keys, with a new blank sheet of paper I could create any world I wanted. I loved the thunk of the carriage as it returned for a brand new thought. My words had power when they were recorded in stark black letters on a bright white surface.
I knew I wanted to be a writer at the tender age of 5 when I wrote my first short story. It was called “The Fan.” It was about an electric fan. My work has matured in style, if not substance, since then.
I first knew I wanted to be a writer when I fell in love with Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel in high school. Wolfe showed me that my (to me, insignificant) life experiences were worthy of writing about. Plus, his family was more screwed up than mine! Perhaps it’s fitting that I now live in Asheville, right next door to the house where he grew up.
Originally, I wanted to illustrate children’s books but found it would be easier to make my mark if I also wrote them. I was hired to teach writing for children after only one publication. After a few years of teaching and authoring picture books, I began to be beguiled by storytelling in longer forms. I saw that I had much more to say than I ever imagined, and that the longer forms were where I belonged. My texts became longer. Eventually, I became a Contributing Editor for the LAWeekly, and sold stories to Cosmopolitan. From there I wrote for TV and screenplays. Recently, a book emerged in free verse for young adults.This is all to say, I just kept going, took classes and workshops, and met in peer groups for feedback. It’s been a blast.
I don’t know if I can pinpoint an exact moment that made me think “yes, I want to be a writer!” I have always been surrounded by books. As a late eighties baby, my mom read to me before I was born, and as a toddler, she rewarded me for good behavior at the grocery store with the latest book in The Bernstein Bears series. She also tells stories about how, when I was little, I wanted to be a book doctor and make all of the sick books feel better.
I credit knowing that creative nonfiction was my strength to Joe Mackall’s class “The Essay,” which I took during my junior year of college. I did not have much of an understanding of creative nonfiction and the essay form, but at that time, CNF was really starting to come into its own as a field. I felt challenged as a writer, but as I wrote the essays for that class, my writing felt less restrained and frustrated than it did when I wrote fiction or poetry. And, as someone who was studying both creative writing and journalism, the essay felt like the perfect place for me because it combined what I liked best about both modes of writing. That’s where I’ve primarily put myself since, is as an essay writer.
In junior high, I wrote my first short story. It involves a high schooler — a Donnie Darko, moody, introspective type — who lashes out at his cheating girlfriend and her lover in a fit of rage. Now, cheating partners and crimes of passion are well-worn literary tropes, but when you attend a tiny private Christian school, a story about teenagers, sex, and murder raises an eyebrow or two.
Glenda was my English teacher for 6th and 8th grade. After I’d written the short story, she met with me and my parents. She didn’t chastise or reprimand me. Instead, she told me to keep writing, and she introduced me to poetry. She changed me, with grace, and with encouragement, and gentle correction. She taught me that something else was possible, necessary. She taught me that storytelling was something worth pursuing, that if I began a sentence with ‘Once upon a time,’ she would lean in with great expectation, like someone desperate to catch the warmth and light from a fresh campfire, and she’d smile Cheshire-Cat-Wide and whisper, ‘and then?’
I believe in so much because of her, and I hope for so much because of her. Glenda Vanderkam is the reason I’m a writer.
When I was 17, I was taught English Literature by the poet RF Langley. He introduced me to serious reading. I wrote some poetry then. When Roger later became a friend, he also became a valuable reader of my first stories. As an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia in Norwich I attended a course of seminars on twentieth century fiction given by Dr Ellman Crasnow. He introduced me to the work of Borges (Labyrinths), Nabokov (Pale Fire) and Muriel Spark (Not To Disturb). What a delight. I decided then that I wanted to write like them and began the attempt straight away. I wrote several stories a year for the next ten years or so. Two were published in Panurge and two in Stand. Then I stopped for more than twenty years. This hiatus coincided with the birth of my two children, but was not, I think, caused by it. Anyway, in 2015, having read Nabokov’s Complete Stories, I started writing again. Since then I have written “quite prolifically,” so I have been told, around fifty stories which are “difficult to follow,” so I have been told. One has been published in Stand and another is forthcoming in Wraparound South. It think it is likely that readers will find the stories academic in some way and they will notice that they are a reader’s stories. That will not be to everyone’s taste, but I feel it is natural that the stories should be like this and I am happy that it should be so.
What’s the most embarrassing moment of your writing career?
As a new reporter on my college newspaper, I was assigned to review a book of poetry by faculty member Reed Whittemore. I used the word “spritely” to describe his style. Forty years later, after unearthing crumbly news clips as a reunion drew near, I discovered that he was the US Poet Laureate for 1964-65. Had I known, I would have been too terrified to write. (He later had a second term, in 1984-85, but I had safely graduated by then.)
I never heard back about my flash poetry entry for Crossroads Magazine in San Miguel de Allende, so I assumed it hadn’t garnered attention. When I arrived in that city to attend a reception and read a poem of mine that had been included in the anthology, Solamente en San Miguel, I picked up a copy of Crossroads and discovered my name as runner-up to the winner, a new friend of mine. She hadn’t recognized my formal writing name; the notification system had failed, and not even Submittable had been notified. This was upsetting! I was chagrined, too, that the judge, Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco, whom I had met the year before in a workshop, had never received a thank-you note from me. I fired off a round of firmly-stated emails to the organizers of the contest. Bad news: the head poet/organizer schooled me about keeping perspective on small lit magazines versus one’s career status. Good news: she gave me a huge hug and said she loved me. More good news: after writing Richard Blanco, he asked me whether he might send my poem to Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker. This meant more to me than any publication credit or correct notice in Submittable. Takeaway: remember that small-lit publishers are often working on a shoestring as a labor of love and to cut them slack when mistakes are made.
After a Washington Post review of one of my plays included the phrase, “oily and underhanded,” my wife came home from work to find me, literally, curled up under a table. Over time, the percentage of bad reviews has diminished, in part because of something I learned from the ones that depressed me versus the ones that just disappointed me. When criticized for a play I tried to write in the style of a playwright I admired, it was as if I’d been caught naked, and I got depressed. But when criticized for a play that was in my voice, I was just disappointed. So while, even after coming out from under the table, I continue to be influenced by other writers, I’ve come to attach the question: why am I influenced by this one or that one? From which, I’ve found, come insights.
What drives you crazy about the writing process?
Without question, trying to figure out my format. Third person allows more flexibility in the narrative, but sometimes I wish I could throw out the rules and write more freely in first person without questioning how much a character should know. Revising is often tougher than writing the first draft. It is a process that only gets kinder as you grow as a writer. Once my hated foe, I’m learning to appreciate it the more I write. I also struggle with grammar immensely. My artist statement for my thesis contains this wonderful quote by Elmore Leonard: ‘I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.’
What advice do you have for new or emerging writers?
Embrace rejection. Celebrate your rejections and acceptances alike. Each rejection is a validation that you were brave enough to keep speaking your truth and putting your voice out there into the world. A fellow poet recently posted on Facebook that she submitted to a popular journal 17 times before they accepted one of her poems, which quickly became one of that journal’s most-shared poems of the year. The poets with the most acceptances any given month on Submittable are also frequently on the most-rejected list. Take time away from writing if you need to, but never give up.
Also, don’t be afraid of simultaneous submissions (unless you are submitting somewhere that expressly states they don’t allow it). One of my poetry mentors told me that she noticed in the university classes she teaches that the male students were getting published at a rate far surpassing the female students even though they were not better writers. She was curious as to why and asked the students more about their submission process. What she found was that the men tended to submit widely and simultaneously while the women would wait to see if their work was accepted by one journal before submitting the same piece again, so as not to risk irking the editors by having to withdraw a poem that was accepted elsewhere. The problem is that many journals take six months or more to respond and have acceptance rates of less than 1%, so the odds are not in your favor. Since hearing that advice, I’ve increased my submissions substantially and I’ve started to get published (and rejected) more.
Finally, keep reading and learning and experimenting. Read a lot and hone your craft. Seek feedback from other writers. As one of my poetry heroes Brenda Hillman says, write the poems you want to read.
First, if you want to write, sit down and write. Don’t think about writing. Don’t talk about writing. DO writing.
Second, there is no such thing as “writer’s block.” When you don’t know what to write, sit down and write anyway. Write a note to a friend, write what you are thinking about, or make a grocery list. Just start writing.
By the end of the page, you might have a line or two you can use.
What are your guilty pleasures when it comes to reading?
Easy … any fiction by Charles Bukowski. I just finished Post Office and thought the story and his writing and storytelling style, of course, is just hilarious. As intelligent readers, we’re always looking for the deeper, and deepest, meaning in a book, but when you read Bukowski, you don’t have to search for it because a deeper meaning just ain’t there … unless the deepest meaning is pure fun and entertainment.