Boston

Cambridge Public Library Party

cambridge-public-library-logo

By Daniel Ford

The Cambridge Public Library announced earlier this week that it is hosting literacy-themed library parties at locations across Cambridge, Mass, this summer and fall.

These parties—hosted in partnership with the Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA), the Department of Human Services, and the Cambridge Public Health Department—aim to increase awareness of the library system in Cambridge, get more children signed up for library cards, and generate excitement for the library.

On July 19, the library (partnering with Agenda for Children) will participate in the Cambridge Story Walk. It will also host a party at the Corcoran Park Housing Authority on Sept. 30 that will focus on signing children up to get a library card and explain services that are offered at the library (snacks will be served, of course!).

Maria McCauley, director of libraries for the Cambridge Public Library, graciously answered a few of my questions recently about the initiative.

Daniel Ford: Where did the idea for these literary-themed library parties you have planned for this summer and fall originate?

Maria McCauley: This program is part of a national framework to encourage grade level reading through the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) who encourages member libraries to create their own local initiatives around this theme. We reached out to the CHA and they were excited to work with us.

DF: How important is it for children living in HUD-assisted housing to do so in a “book-rich environment?”

MM: Research has shown that all children thrive by living in a "book-rich environment" and the Cambridge Public Library is committed to serving all youth in Cambridge. We're especially eager to focus on initiatives that will help to close the achievement gap.

DF: How excited are library employees, as well as the local agencies you’re partnering with, to help spread literacy in a fun way?

MM: Our library employees and local partners are extremely committed to supporting literacy in fun and creative ways. If you asked our employees, I think they would say that it is programs like this one that inspires us to do what we do.

DF: Are there plans for future programs like this in the future?

MM: We're always looking for new ways to partner with various agencies and for opportunities to promote literacy. Because this is a pilot program, we will assess the program for future expansion. We're excited by the possibilities!

To learn more about the Cambridge Public Library, visit its official website, like its Facebook page, or follow it on Twitter @cambridgepl.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Author Unplugged: 10 Questions With Liz Moore

Liz Moore (Photo credit: Olivia Valentine)

Liz Moore (Photo credit: Olivia Valentine)

By Daniel Ford

Liz Moore’s recent novel The Unseen World defies easy categorization. It’s a story about family—specifically the bond between a daughter and her father—humanity’s relationship with technology, and how love, communication, and identity can span decades.

Booklist called The Unseen World “a stunner,” and author Alex Gilvarry praised it as “beautiful, redemptive, and utterly devastating.” The novel has also received positive reviews from the likes of The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, and The Boston Globe.

Moore recently discussed with me what inspired The Unseen World, how her writing process involves writing between the cracks of life, and why writers should completely unplug from technology while they’re writing.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up knowing you wanted to be a storyteller or was it a passion that developed over time?

Liz Moore: I definitely always wrote. At first it was mainly poems, and it was mainly in a journal. I actually didn’t discover how much I wanted to write fiction until well into college.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

LM: Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Russell Banks, Zora Neale Hurston, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce’s Dubliners.

DF: What’s your writing process like?

LM: I take four or five years to write a novel. I don’t have an outline of the story; rather, I begin with characters and really get to know them over the course of dozens of false starts. Once I’ve found the beginning of a problem or a plot for them, I move forward, slowly, with lots of backtracking and starting over.

I usually turn off all technology when I write, and try to set aside at least four consecutive hours for a writing session, but as my life gets busier and my family gets bigger I have to squeeze writing into the cracks of life more.

DF: In addition to being a novelist, you’re also a short story writer. We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone. What is it about the format that appeals to you?

LM: I love thinking of short stories as gems to polish; I go over and over and over them, trimming excess words from them, substituting language that is more precise or beautiful when I can think of it.

DF: What inspired your recently published novel The Unseen World?

LM: My father is a scientist, and I grew up surrounded by “lab culture” and by computers that evolved from the earliest personal Macs to fairly sophisticated machines over the course of my childhood. Unlike the novel’s protagonist, Ada, I was never strong in science, and I went to public school and had a more traditional upbringing than she has in the book; unlike her father, David, my father is a physicist, not a computer scientist. Also, as far as I know, he has no secret past, which David decidedly does. However, as a child, I had fantasies about being a prodigy like Ada—unfulfilled fantasies, of course—and today I have fond memories of spending time with many of my father’s colleagues and with their spouses and families. Finally, my father works in Boston; I grew up in the suburbs of Boston; and I have an aunt who lives in Dorchester. These are the parts of my upbringing that were most resonant as I was writing this book.

I’ve also always been interested philosophically in the fraught relationship between humans and machines. I first heard the so-called “Turing Test” described as a child, and that concept—combined with the many hours I spent in my youth talking to the Eliza program, a primitive chatbot that came pre-loaded on many early Macs—sparked my curiosity about what truly intelligent machines would act like.

DF: The novel not only spans several decades, but also has interweaving plotlines and a fresh take on artificial intelligence. Did you have all of these elements planned out beforehand or did they flow organically as you were writing?

LM: I didn’t have any of them planned out in advance, which is part of why the novel took so long to write!

DF: I know writers hate talking about themes, but I’ll ask this anyway. Did you want to touch on specific themes in The Unseen World?

LM: I never write “to theme,” and I tell my students not to either. In my opinion, having particular themes in mind when one begins writing results in flat characters that act in unnatural ways. At the end of a strong first draft, I might look back and ask myself what themes happen to be in it, and then try to pull them out in certain ways, but that’s about it.

DF: This being your third novel, I imagine you find yourself putting less and less of yourself, and those in your orbit, into your characters and plot. Is that true or do you still find pieces of your real life that fit perfectly into your narrative?

LM: I’m not sure that’s true; in many ways, this novel is very autobiographical, as it’s set for the first time in Boston (near where I grew up) and deals with a lab (around which I grew up).

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

LM: Disconnect from technology! Leave your phone behind while writing, and turn on a program like Freedom while you’re writing. If your writing requires research, do your research in separate sessions.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

LM: I was born in the early hours of May 25, 1983, the day after the centennial celebration of the Brooklyn Bridge. My grandfather was president of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden at the time, and was in attendance at the celebration. He made a deal on the spot with the then-borough president that if I’m alive for the bicentennial (the day before my hundredth birthday), I’ll speak at the ceremony. Apparently there is a letter to this effect on record someplace in Brooklyn, but presumably it is a paper record and it’s buried very deep in an archive!

To learn more about Liz Moore, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @LizMooreBooks.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

‘Never Deny Yourself the Joy of Writing:’ 10 Questions With Author Louie Cronin

Louie Cronin

Louie Cronin

By Daniel Ford

It’s Writer’s Bone policy to talk to authors who feature a vinyl record on their book covers or have been involved in “Car Talk” in any shape or form. Cambridge-based author Louie Cronin checks off both boxes with ease!

Cronin’s passion for storytelling and bubbly optimism is infectious, and translates to every page of her fun debut novel Everyone Loves You Back (which comes out Oct. 21, 2016). Her main character Bob Boland, a “sarcastic, jazz-loving radio engineer working the night shift,” is faced with every city dweller’s nightmare: “urban tree-huggers and uppity intellectuals with designer dogs.” The back cover really sets the tone of the novel: “Sex. Wine. Jazz. Existential dread.” We’ll have what she’s having.

Cronin recently chatted with me about growing up in a storytelling family, her fond memories of “Car Talk,” her publishing journey, and what inspired Everyone Loves You Back.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to become a storyteller?

Louie Cronin: I grew up in a storytelling family. We would sit around the kitchen table at night, drink tea, and talk. My father, in particular, was a great storyteller and very funny. And he never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn. Even now I have to stop myself when I am quoting him and ask, could that have really happened?

I always loved to read and dreamed of becoming a writer from the time I was a kid. I took several stabs at it in high school and college. I even took an early retirement from an audio engineering job to write a novel. But I didn’t have the first idea of how to start.

I didn’t really get down to it until I had moved to New York in my 30s. I remember one moment in particular. I was working at NBC and doing the sound for an interview with the novelist Robert Stone. I didn’t know his work then, but I felt such an affinity for him, I wanted to crawl through the glass wall that separated the studio from the control room and sit in his lap! What was I doing on the wrong side of that wall?

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

LC: The librarians at the Belmont Public Library, in the town where we moved when I was 10. I worked my way through the entire young adult section there. I read pretty indiscriminately and finished every book! I thought that if a writer had put the time in, I had to finish it, out of respect. I wish I could keep that practice up now as an adult, but I’m afraid I start and stop lots of books.

I loved J.D. Salinger’s books, and read them all, several times. When I finally got to high school and found out the nuns had banned Catcher in the Rye, I laughed. I had read and almost memorized it years before!

I turned to books for answers when I had problems. When I started having doubts about my faith, I couldn’t turn to my family or the nuns. Instead I found Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham in the young adult section. I felt like I had this secret, liberating resource at the library.

When I first started writing seriously in my 30s I was reading a lot of Barbara Pym, Alice McDermott, Raymond Carver, and Martin Amis. Recently I’ve enjoyed all the Edward St. Aubyn books and Lily King’s Euphoria. I just finished Zadie Smith, White Teeth, which I loved. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to it.

DF: “Car Talk” remains one of my favorite shows. How did you end up working there, and was it as much fun as it sounded?

LC: I worked at WBUR for years and got to know Tom and Ray and some of the “Car Talk” staff there. When a job at “Car Talk” came open, I tried out for it. I had to pick callers for the show and write funny promo material. I spent a whole weekend working on the promos and still had nothing to show. Someone else I knew was applying for it too and I asked her how she found the writing test? “Easy!” She said. I found it excruciatingly hard, but I got the job! I think there’s a lot of truth in the Thomas Mann quote: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Working there was so much fun, but also lots of plain old work. Any time I spent with Tom and Ray was fun. You could hear them laughing as they rode the elevator up to the radio station. After the show we’d have lunch in the cafeteria and they’d entertain us and anyone else who happened to stop by. They are exactly like they sound on the radio—funny, smart, free-spirited, totally original—but maybe even kinder and deeper in person. I love them both and miss Tom a lot.

I picked the calls that got onto the show and wrote material for the breaks and the ending, like the funny names, the fake funding credits, and Bugsy’s gastronomical exploits. My first week on the job I found Picov Andropov, the show’s Russian chauffeur. I knew it would be all downhill from there.

DF: In addition to being a novelist, you’re also a short story writer. We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone. What is it about the format that appeals to you?

LC: I love short stories and for many years that is all that I wrote. I love the economy of the form, the precision of the language, the ability to focus in on one event. There is something so concentrated and potent in short stories. I also like that you can read one in one sitting! And that you can write one in a relatively short period of time, unlike the novel, where you have to commit to years. In grad school we had to produce a short story every two weeks. I’m not saying mine were great. But it was doable. I would have two going at once. When I got stuck on one, I would turn to the other one. I also have been a member of a wonderful writing group that was started by the late short story writer Andre Dubus. Getting to know Andre and his work deepened my appreciation of short stories and in a way, broadened my sense of what they can do, where they can go.

DF: What inspired your debut novel Everyone Loves You Back?

LC: The novel was inspired by a rant, that came to me in the voice of Bob Boland, the main character. I was living in Cambridge at the time, watching my neighborhood transform before my eyes. People like me were disappearing. Super wealth was flowing in. Every house on the street was renovated and dripping with copper! There was an intense pressure to keep up with the Joneses. Neighbors would offer to lend me their gardening tools to encourage me to keep my yard up. They had landscapers. I was doing it on my own.

DF: How much of yourself, and your experiences, ended up in your characters and your plot?

LC: A lot. The main character, Bob Boland works in radio as a sound engineer, which I have done off and on my entire career. He lives in Cambridge, my hometown, and has my kind of sarcastic voice. He also had bits of my brothers and father in him and bits of people I grew up with, went to school with, worked with, or even dated. But in the process of writing, he morphed into someone entirely apart from me or anyone I knew, so much so that in the end I really admired and loved him. I thought of him as a real hero, who could act in a way that suited him and the story, and not be constrained by my limited life. It was really a liberating experience, to start from what you know—Cambridge, radio—and through the fictional process watch this other being and story emerge. 

Similarly the plot is a mash up of things that happened and things that are totally made up! But I drew from previous jobs, people I knew, things I read in the news, stories I heard. What’s really strange is how many things I made up that later came true! Long after finishing the novel, for example, I got a job at a radio station that was getting rid of its jazz shows!

DF: I feel that Cambridge is an untapped literary landscape. Why did you decide to base the novel there?

LC: Simple. I was living there; I was born there. Cambridge is kind of a character in the novel. I have always wanted to express what a wild place it was to grow up in. My block had Nobel Prize winners, garbage collectors, cops, and psychiatrists living cheek by jowl. It was a very eccentric, quirky, and open-minded place, but there was always this tension between Harvard and the natives, town and gown, the haves and have nots.

DF: How long did it take you to write the novel, and what was your publishing journey like?

LC: It took me five years to write it. I was working full time at “Car Talk” for most of that time and since it was my first novel, I was learning how to do it as I went. And then of course, I had to go back and rewrite it. My publishing journey was hard, much harder than I expected. I had so much positive feedback along the way, I thought it would be easy. But when I sent it out into the publishing world, I got lots of positive rejections!

DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next for you?

LC: I am writing my second novel. I’m 100 pages into the first draft. And I’ve been writing some short stories and essays.

DF: We always end here, and being a first-time writer yourself, I’m sure this is something you’ve thought about while promoting Everyone Loves You Back: What is your advice for aspiring authors?

LC: There’s the writing life and the joy it brings, the immense satisfaction. And you can give yourself that joy. No one else holds the key to it. No one can take it away from you. No matter your success or your failure, you can give yourself that gift. For years I worked as an engineer and knew something was missing. Starting to write was a revelation to me.

Then there’s the whole publishing world. You need a thick skin to brave it. Everyone told me that, but I thought somehow I would sneak by and have an easy time of it. I thought I would be the exception.

So I guess my advice is, believe everyone when they say how rough it is out there, but never deny yourself the joy of writing. It is such a relief to do what you love.

To learn more about Louie Cronin, follow her on Twitter @louiecronin.

The Writer’s Bone Interview Archives

Fiction Sleuth: 10 Questions With Author Ingrid Thoft

Ingrid Thoft (Photo credit: Doug Berrett)

Ingrid Thoft (Photo credit: Doug Berrett)

By Daniel Ford

Author Ingrid Thoft’s Fina Ludlow series has everything a Writer’s Bone reader loves: a strong, fearless female private investigator, a story with emphasis on characters and relationships, and a Boston setting. Her newest novel Brutality, which comes out June 23, features Boston P.I. Ludlow tracking down an assailant accused of assaulting a soccer mom in her kitchen.

Thoft recently answered some of my questions about her early influences, writing about Boston, her new novel, and what’s in store for Fina Ludlow.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Ingrid Thoft: My mother thinks my path was clear when I decided at a young age that despite getting our small town newspaper, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times delivered every day, there was a hole that could only be filled by my own newspaper. I distinctly remember creating copies on a typewriter and illustrating them myself. Articles covered things like world hunger and Jimmy Carter’s peanut farm—real hard-hitting stuff. 

As I got older, I knew that I wanted writing to be the mainstay of my work, but you don’t generally become a novelist the day you graduate from college. Instead, I wrote in various settings including a non-profit, an interactive company, and in the human resources office at Harvard University. Most of the work I did was geared toward employees, and although the content of my current writing is very different, I developed skills like meeting deadlines and adopting the style of writing to suit the audience, both of which have served me well.

I can’t talk about writing without talking about reading. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and reading is to me like breathing, eating and sleeping—essential to survival. Being able to spend my time on both sides of that equation—reading and writing—is a tremendous privilege and a source of much satisfaction.

DF: Who were some of your early influences and current favorites?

IT: I sound like a broken record, but I can’t overstate the importance of the Nancy Drew books by Caroline Keene. The series has it all: intrigue, danger, suspense, and strong, smart female characters. Reading those books taught me that women can not only be detectives, but also write detectives. I also love the fact that Nancy is shared by multiple generations; my mom loved the books, my sisters and I loved the books and my nieces love them, too. Other favorites from childhood are the Encyclopedia Brown series and the Choose Your Own Adventure books. 

My current favorites are many of the names you might expect; Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Ace Atkins, Reed Farrel Coleman, Ann Cleeves, Chevy Stevens, and Elizabeth George. I recently enjoyed Suitcase City by Sterling Watson and Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton. On my TBR list is Vanished by Joseph Finder.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline? Did your process change at all between your first novel, Loyalty, and Brutality?

IT: I never listen to music when I work. I find it too distracting. I like quiet with the exception of the soundtrack of downtown Seattle, which is just outside my window. Sirens, car horns, and the occasional street musician serve as good background noise.

My writing process can best be described as “herding cats” in that I always wish it were more straightforward, but I don’t think that’s the nature of the beast. I start with a general concept that raises lots of interesting questions. For example, in the case of Brutality, I was fascinated by the relationship between sports, health, money, and our sense of identity. As the body of compelling data grows, why do we continue to participate in activities that compromise our health? How do we define entertainment? What are we willing to sacrifice in the name of toughness, and what happens to our identities when certain activities are no longer a part them? Once my brain is working on the questions, I come up with a general plot and then write extensive character studies to populate the universe I’m creating. I can tell you all sorts of things about the characters that will never explicitly show up on the page, but I believe their backstories make them more three-dimensional. When I start writing, I know where I want the story to end up, and I usually outline the first chunk of pages—30 or so—and continue to do that as I progress. Lots of things change during the actual writing phase, and I may alter the course while I write, but I couldn’t sit down and start without some kind of plan. I liken it to captaining a sailboat; you should have a map and compass with you, but if conditions change, you need to respond accordingly. I like to think of it as a loose framework that fosters creativity.

The most significant change from one book to the next is that I’ve gotten more confident about the process itself. At those moments when I feel like I’ll never finish or a plot point will never be resolved, I can remind myself that I’ve felt that way before, and it’s always worked out in the end. 

DF: How did the idea for Brutality originate?

IT: I’m always keeping my eyes open for a good story or usually just the kernel for a good story. This entails reading the newspaper, reading news online and watching true crime television shows. The entire book writing process takes a year so I have to find a subject matter that holds my attention. I can’t expect readers to be interested if I’m not!

I don’t remember the exact moment that I got the idea for Brutality, but I had a general sense that there was an interesting turning of the tide that was happening in terms of sports and concussions. This is to me an extremely juicy topic, and my goal is always for my books to pose complicated questions for readers with no easy answers. I especially like situations where one’s theoretical and practical responses might actually be different. Maybe you’ve read the research and decided your child shouldn’t play football due to the risks, but what if you were raised in a football-loving family? What if the family rituals certain around football? What if you identify strongly as a fan? It’s between that rock and a hard place where the most interesting stories live.

DF: How much of yourself ends up in your main character Fina Ludlow?

IT: This is a tough question for me to answer since she wouldn’t exist without me, but we are different in many ways. I have only sisters, no brothers, and I had a great relationship with my father when he was alive and have a wonderful relationship with my mother. I think that the qualities we share are being independent, determined and hard workers with a strong belief in standing up for what we think is right. We differ in that Fina says things I’d like to say, but I’m way too polite to actually utter them! That’s the great thing about fiction; you can make people say and do exactly what you want them to without any real-life consequences!

DF: Since you’re a Boston native and that’s where your books take place, what details of the city did you want to capture and what clichés about Beantown did you hope to avoid?

IT: One of the things I love about Boston that I wanted to convey in the books is the breadth and depth of the city in terms of its people and their passions. There are so many world-class things about the city: its medical facilities, higher education, the arts, professional sports teams, as well as a strong sense of pride and history that shows up in things like the multiple generations of families who serve in the police and fire departments. People from all over the world come to Boston, and on any given day a visitor could be seen by a specialist in a top-notch hospital or watching a baseball game sitting above the Green Monster. I wanted Fina’s adventures to reflect that diversity. She may spend time interviewing a potential client in the ICU at Mass General or visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but you’ll also find her at Kelly’s Roast Beef eating fried clams and a lobster roll. It’s fun for me and readers to ride along with her.

I wanted to avoid the misconception that everyone from Boston or its environs has the typical Boston accent. Lots of people do, but lots of people don’t. This was an interesting issue when we were casting for the audiobook. Some of the contenders had badly done Boston accents—trust me, there’s nothing worse—and it was really distracting. The voice actress who has recorded all three audio books, Rebecca Soler, does a terrific job without the accent. She’s also from Boston, which proves my point that the accent isn’t a given!

DF: We did a podcast interview with Boston P.I. John Nardizzi who also used his professional skills to develop a writing career. What did you learn through your program at the University of Washington that helped you create your series?  

IT: I learned a lot of practical information in terms of detection that Fina employs, like how to mine information from public records and how to conduct effective interviews, but the thing I was most surprised by was my shifting attitudes toward personal injury attorneys. One of my instructors did a lot of work for the kinds of attorneys who advertise on television, like Carl Ludlow, and I learned that in certain circumstances, those attorneys are the only thing saving victims from financial ruin. Perhaps a single mother is injured in a car accident that wasn’t her fault, but if she doesn’t have health insurance or other safety nets, the dominos in her life can quickly fall. Maybe she misses work to go to physical therapy, but then she can’t pay for day care, and then she loses her job, but has no one to watch her kids when she looks for a new job, and what about all those doctors’ bills? Many of us are lucky enough to have layers of support that keep us from the brink—both financially and emotionally. For people who don’t have that, personal injury lawyers can be lifesavers.

One of my primary motivations for earning the certificate in the UW program was so that I could create a character who knew her stuff. Fina breaks the rules and some laws, but that’s always a conscious choice on her part. She’s not incompetent; she just marches to the beat of her own drummer!

DF: Now that you have three novels under your belt, what’s next?

IT: I’m putting the finishing touches on book number four in the series, which will be published in June 2016 with the plan to continue the series. The first two books are in development at ABC to be a television series, and although I don’t have any involvement in the creation of the show, I’m really anxious to see the producers’ interpretation of the universe I’ve created. I always enjoy the opportunity to meet readers and look forward to doing even more of that this year. I’ll be attending the Bouchercon Convention in Raleigh in October and speaking at the Book Group Roundup in Colorado Springs in November. It’s particularly energizing to interact with readers when I’m starting the next book in the series; their excitement is contagious!

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

IT: I like to quote Winston Churchill when giving advice to aspiring writers, but with a caveat. He said, “Never, never, never give up” and I believe that may be the only difference between a frustrated unpublished writer and a published writer. The caveat is that you have to learn to accept criticism and to incorporate feedback so as to improve your work. You need to be thick-skinned to be a writer, and if you can’t bear to hear negative feedback or are convinced that your work can’t be improved, you might be in the wrong line of work. The critical question to keep in mind when fielding criticism and suggestions is: “Does this make the work better or just different?” Better is better, but different is just someone else’s book.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

IT: As a sixteen-year-old, I worked the 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. shift at a small local AM radio station. I did everything—wrote copy, called police and fire stations for news, and delivered on-air segments, including sports. I pity the Red Sox fans who had to suffer through my game reports. I read copy from the wire, but I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, and I have to imagine that was obvious!

To learn more about Ingrid Thoft, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @IngridThoft.

FULL ARCHIVE

Breath and Silence: Poet Janaka Stucky On Striving for the Apex of His Art

Janaka Stucky (Photo credit:   Adrianne Mathiowetz)

Janaka Stucky (Photo credit: Adrianne Mathiowetz)

By Daniel Ford

I didn’t know much about modern poets before National Poetry Month started, but thanks to Quan Barry and now Janaka Stucky, I’m much more educated about today’s poetry market.

Stucky, whose new collection The Truth Is We Are Perfect was published earlier in April and is a true pleasure to read, recently answered some of my questions about his early influences, his writing process, and his literary magazine Handsome.

For those of you in the Boston area hankering for a good poetry reading after the snowy winter, plan a night out around Stucky’s book release party at The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., at 9:00 p.m. on May 2.

Daniel Ford: What made you decide to become a poet?

Janaka Stucky: This is a funny question because I never thought of it as a decision before. At some point one simply starts writing poems. If you feel it’s necessary to share them with others you seek an audience. If you’re lucky, and you’re any good, you’re encouraged to write more. After years of dedication you hopefully feel competent enough to call yourself a poet—if that has become how you primarily present yourself to the world. I still feel a little sheepish saying, “I am a poet” though, despite having spent the majority of my life practicing the art of it, obtaining two degrees in poetry, and getting paid on occasion to be one. I wonder why that is? I think, maybe, because it presumes some criteria of success—or arrival. I don’t feel like I’ve arrived. I don’t mean that in the canonical sense; I mean I haven’t arrived at the apex of my art. I think that kind of arrival would mean an end to writing, for me anyway. The poems are the struggle, or the document of the struggle, to attain a certain pure consciousness. If I were able to maintain that altered state—if I were to become enlightened—then I’d feel good about saying, “I am a poet.” But then I wouldn’t need to keep writing. So maybe I am only a poet once I no longer need to write poetry…

DF: Which poets influenced you and what’s your favorite poem of all time?

JS: It would be difficult to define a narrow set of influences, let alone limit the influences to poets. I’m probably just as (if not more) influenced by other elements—music, meditation, sculpture, the occult imagination—as I am by other poets. That said, the strongest influences on me have probably been the French surrealists, the German romantics, a handful of Russian poets, a couple of ancient Japanese poets, and two American poets: Bill Knott and Frank Stanford. Similarly I can’t name a favorite poem of all time—each moment has its own poem—but an important poem to me is “Nocturnally Pouting” by Paul Celan, a line of which is tattooed on my upper right pectoral.

A word—you know:
a corpse

I read this poem during grad school, while I was also working in the funeral business, and it really resonated with me. I ended up writing a long paper on the poem as funeral, a ritual to illuminate the always-already death of language, and titled my lecture after this same line from the Paul Celan poem.

DF: When you sit down to write a poem, is there a set number of words you’re aiming for each time you sit at the keyboard, or does it depend on the type of poetry you’re writing?

JS: When I sit down to write a poem, I simply sit down to write that one poem. I work in increments of time rather than numbers of words, so I sit for 30 or 60 minutes and whatever I have created in that time is the new poem. It’s important to note here that I write from a kind of trance state, which I enter through an intentional ritual. The creative act for me is a kind of waking meditation; the goal is to become empty, not to write something in particular. Whatever exists on the page at the end of the meditation is the poem.

DF: Each of your poems is structured a little differently. Does the process for deciding the form of the poem occur during the writing or editing process?

JS: Neither, really. The form is an organic expression of the breath and silence in the poem. Michelangelo talked about how every block of stone has a statue inside of it, and that it is the sculptor’s job to find that statue. Similarly every poem for me has its own form that gets expressed as the poem materializes. I may refine the form as I edit, but the form is inherent to that poem.

DF: I may be stepping on your random fact with this, but you’re a two-time National Haiku Champion and you were voted “Boston’s Best Poet” in the Boston Phoenix in 2010. What kind of street cred does that give you among poets and what were those experiences like?

JS: I might start by asking: what kind of street cred even exists among poets to have? Which maybe gives you a little bit of an idea how much cred those titles give me… I’m actually a little embarrassed by them because I think they’re false superlatives, but of course they make for good publicity angles so my publisher likes to include them in press releases. The Haiku competitions are really just for fun—I think they’re more about one’s ability to improvise and perform under pressure than they are about the craft itself. After I won the second competition I invented the Haiku Death Match, which I thought was more interesting. Instead of judges each round one poet has to concede to the other, and then take a shot of sake. In this way the competition is more about humility, and the loser is the winner by virtue. As for the Boston Phoenix title, I actually won through a grassroots write-in campaign. Each year, it was always the same old candidate group—comprised of tenured university faculty, poet laureates, etc. The year I won, the official nominees were: Sam Cornish, Robert Pinsky, Louise Gluck, Rosanna Warren, Margo Lockwood, and Frank Bidart. I think people just wanted to see younger options and fresh names on the ballot, so my win was really an act of protest. But it worked! After that, each year the Phoenix started digging a little deeper into the pool of local talent to find the names.

DF: Can you tell me a little background on your literary magazine Handsome and explain what you look for in contributor’s work?

JS: A lot of indie presses start as magazines and then graduate to books; I started Black Ocean and then decided to publish a journal a couple of years later. I’ve come to learn they’re really entirely different endeavors, with their own set of challenges and processes. To run Handsome, I enlisted two incredibly talented poets and writers: Allison Titus and Paige Ackerson-Kiely. It’s really their aesthetic that drives the selection, which is different from the books that Black Ocean publishes. The best way to understand it is to either read their work, or read Handsome. In that sense, we look for contributors who are interested in what we’re doing.

DF: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?

JS: Read. Read books in translation; read contemporary and classical work; read works from different genders and different races; read work from writers much younger than you and writers much older than you; read fiction and non-fiction not just poetry; read comic books; read photography books; read in between the lines and the white spaces in the margins; read with your breath as well as your eyes; read until you fall asleep then read what’s on the inside of your eyelids; read in your dreams; read until you wake up.

DF: Can you name one random fact about you?

JS: When I was a young child I had an invisible friend named Buggy. Whenever I would get caught having done something I shouldn’t have I would say, “Buggy did it.” As I got older Buggy stopped appearing for me, and so I stopped blaming things on him. I stopped drawing Buggy, and the intricacies of Buggy’s personal life faded from my consciousness. But Buggy was very real to me at one point; I don’t think it’s fair to call one’s friends at that age “imaginary.” He was part of the story I told myself to understand the world around me. The random fact here isn’t that I was friends with a scapegoat no one else could see, named Buggy; the random fact is that I’ve come to realize Buggy actually exists.

To learn more about Janaka Stucky, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @janaka_stucky

FULL ARCHIVE

Back-Alley Baroque: 10 Questions With Boxing Essayist Springs Toledo

Springs Toledo (Photo courtesy of the author)

Springs Toledo (Photo courtesy of the author)

By Daniel Ford

There’s a line in one of Spring Toledo’s boxing essays about Sonny Liston that could easily be at home in an Ernest Hemingway novel:

“It had been a brutal life, and no one wins those.”

Toledo’s The Gods of War, a collection of essays about the sweet science, is filled with not just great sports writing, but damn fine writing, period. The Boston-based essayist recently answered some of my questions about how he developed his love of boxing, his criteria for grading the greatest fighters of all time, and the current state of boxing. 

DF: What came first: Your love of boxing or your love of writing?

Springs Toledo: They were nearly twins. I was an introvert from the first bell, prone to introverted activities like reading and writing stories. Grammar school introverts are fun targets for extroverted belligerents and for years I faced perilous bus rides and high-anxiety recesses. Boxing, which I picked up in the seventh grade, changed everything. For me it was counterterrorism. I was able to stand up for myself without getting immediately knocked down and after doing so once or twice, my quality of life improved remarkably. I love writing, but I not only love boxing, I owe it.

DF: If you had to describe your writing style in one word, what would it be?

ST: If you let me have three words and don’t mind me bogarting a commentator’s description of Roberto Duran’s boxing style, I’ll say “back-alley baroque.” That’s what I’m going for anyway.

DF: What is your writing process like, and how would you say it might differ from that of fiction authors or other sports journalists?

ST: Someone contacted me not long ago and said that my writing seems so effortlessly rhythmic. I laughed and laughed. No one knows how I suffer. Effortlessly rhythmic? I liken it to sitting crossed-legged on a sidewalk with a mallet and a trashcan, trying to create something memorable, half the time in the dark. So I suppose my process is more comparable than not to a novelist’s in that they go through more drafts than they’ll admit to get it right. I have a perfectionist’s tendencies, exacerbated by the journalist’s responsibility for accuracy that stands like a golem in the room. I strive to be at once informative and entertaining. It seems appropriate when you think about it. Writing well is like boxing well: In solitude, science and art.

DF: The Gods of War is written in such a fun, fresh, and engaging style. How did you develop your voice as a sports writer?

ST: Exclusivity is one reason. I’m more of a boxing essayist than a sports writer. I couldn’t tell you three players in the NFL or two in the NBA. Mainstream sports never appealed to me. Why spend three hours watching grown men chasing a ball around when you can spend one hour (or less or much less) experiencing a far more poignant and personal spectacle with far more at stake?

As a subject, the sweet science is every bit as rich as Dicken’s London. It has attracted writers with names like Hemingway, Schulberg, and Liebling. And Dickens and London (as in Jack) for that matter. And I’d bet they’d all tell you something similar regarding their attraction to it. It isn’t just a carnival of masculine virtues for the edification of chauvinists. It’s really a stripped-down study of the human condition and what’s more fascinating than that? You can see so much in a fighter’s eyes during the course of a fight. But what we really see, I think, is a mirror. Ignore for a moment a world-class boxer’s stature as a supreme athlete, as a throwback to our mythic past. Look in his eyes. The humanity never leaves despite all the work they do suppress a significant part of it. On the contrary, the look in their eyes is more human than human. I suppose that’s because they are a facing our common fears all at once—violence, and pain, performing in public, humiliation, claustrophobia. Anyone who has ever boxed seriously if not professionally can relate. It’s terrifying at every level. 

DF: Your collection of essays makes the case that boxers like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson weren’t the greatest of all time. What set of criteria did you develop to start researching this project?

ST: First off, the vast majority of boxing guys who have published pound-for-pound greatest lists have no criteria. They wing it. I tried to quantify mine enough to really see what’s going on, but not so much as to chase it out of the ring. In other words, part of “greatness” defies the statistician. The single most valuable measure in my mind is the caliber of a fighter’s opponents. To illustrate, if I am an undefeated fighter but never entered the ring as an underdog, how great could I be? If I beat second-tier opponents with sparingly few elite opponents, then my greatness is more assumed than proven. Accomplishments must be linked hard to what was overcome; in boxing, it’s mainly about whom you have overcome. In addition to that I considered ring generalship, longevity, dominance, durability, performance against larger men, and intangibles. After all of those considerations were examined and examined again, the name of the greatest boxer since 1920 was like lightning. And the deeper you go into the historical record, the more you examine who he fought and how often he fought and what he had to overcome during his career, the more Robinson and Ali fade in the distance, great though they were.     

DF: Did you have one particular favorite boxer that you kept turning up facts about while researching and writing?

ST: I’ve always had a fascination for Roberto Duran. He’s Odysseus.

DF: The reviews for The Gods of War are overwhelmingly positive. Any plans for a future collection of essays?

ST: Yes. Two, actually. The next one will focus on fighters and fights I’ve covered over the past six years. The working title is In the Cheap Seats: Boxing Essays. After that will be a big one called Murderers’ Row, which will be comprised of several series I’ve done and am still doing about eight black contenders in the 1940s who were avoided by the champions and who became boxing’s “Untold Mysteries.”  

DF: What do you think about the current state of boxing? Related to that, who are some of the more unknown fighters that people should be following?

ST: Jimmy Cannon once called boxing “the red-light district of sports.” That quip is as relevant today as it was then. Some things have gotten worse. Many writers are deeply concerned about performance-enhancing drugs in the sport. If we could peer into the gray to see how many world-class fighters and contenders use them, there would be a collective gasp and more calls to abolish boxing. This isn’t Lance Armstrong on a bicycle; this is two men trying to overcome each other with violence. The sport’s inattention to this problem will see increased casualties—not only with stretchers in the ring but with debilitated retirees that never make the papers.

Another serious problem that is largely responsible for reducing boxing to a niche sport is the lack of clarity regarding the championships. The self-appointed sanctioning bodies profit off every so-called title bout and so have a vested interest in flooding the sport with trick titles. Instead of ignoring them out of existence, most boxing writers acknowledge those trick titles as if they were synonymous with world championships. They’ll refer to one of six different lightweights as “champion” of the division, despite the plain fact that there is one and can only be one.

There is much wrong with boxing, but there remains nothing in the world of sports that compares to a great prizefight. Nothing. And we have great fighters rising up all over the globe. Willie Monroe Jr. made his name on ESPN’s “Friday Night Fights” last year and is on the brink of becoming a middleweight contender. His great uncle was Willie “The Worm” Monroe, a Philadelphia fighter and the only man ever to decisively beat Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Terence Crawford, the true lightweight champion of the world, is a perfect gentleman and a supreme boxer-puncher from Omaha, Neb. of all places. Naoya Inoue is 21 years old and from Japan. He stands only 5-foot 4-inches and weighs no more than 115 pounds. His nickname? “Monster.” Watch his last fight on YouTube and you’ll see why. Last I heard, he chased Godzilla outta Tokyo. 

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming sports writers?

ST: Develop your craft and find your own style. Read books that are not sports-related. Read The New Yorker. If you turn a phrase or offer an insight that seems familiar, consider the risk of plagiarism and Google it before claiming it. Avoid clichés. Don’t cross the line between poignant and maudlin. Don’t expect to make a living doing it. Whether you write for an audience of two million or two, respect them and your name enough to offer your best. Respect every athlete, especially fighters, because what they do is exceedingly dangerous and difficult and chances are excellent that you couldn’t do it.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

ST: I can do a near-perfect impression of Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone from “The Godfather.”

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Finding A Place to Land With Singer-Songwriter Mark Whitaker

Mark Whitaker

Mark Whitaker

By Daniel Ford

Music is constantly being shared back and forth at Writer’s Bone.

The common themes that tie together all of the artists and genres we listen to are honesty and originality. After recently devouring his album “Nowhere to Land,” I can definitely say that it doesn’t get more honest and original than singer/songwriter Mark Whitaker.

Whitaker, armed with a banjo and a voice as smooth as a single malt, tackles heartbreak and the human experience in his beautiful album, which has been on repeat more often than not in my office.

“Forgive me for trying to love you the best I can,” he sings. “Cuz I’ve been flying around for a lifetime with nowhere to land.”

I think I can speak for most of the Writer’s Bone crew when I say, “Amen!”

Whitaker graciously took some time from planning his upcoming tour to answer a few of my questions about his early influences, the inspiration behind “Nowhere to Land,” and the art of songwriting.

Daniel Ford: When did you realize you wanted to be a musician?

Mark Whitaker: It’s hard to say. There’s no distinct moment in my life where I consciously decided to become a musician. I’ve just always been active with music in one form or another since my early childhood. My current situation feels the same. I’m writing songs and seeking opportunities to perform, but I still tend to think of myself as just a guy who likes playing music, rather than a bonafide musician.

DF: Tell me a little about your love for the banjo. When did you start playing it? Did you have posters of Steve Martin on your walls as a kid?

MW: I started playing banjo around 2002. My friend’s mother gave me an old banjo she never played and I immediately fell in love with the sound. It had a sharp, metallic texture, but also a warmth that seemed to scratch an itch I didn’t realize I had. No Steve Martin posters, but I had plenty of his movies on VHS.

DF: Who are some of the artists that influenced you early on?

MW: My earliest music influences were Michael Jackson, The Beatles, George Winston, Danny Elfman, and Brahms. I also had a good amount of Andrew Lloyd Webber drilled into me because my dad would cue up the “Phantom of the Opera” soundtrack for dinner each night, which contained some oddly frenetic pieces for dinner music.

DF: You lived in a couple parts of the country and now make your home in Boston. Why did you make the decision to move here and how has the city influenced your music?

MW: After I graduated from Earlham College in Indiana, some friends and I took a road trip along the East Coast looking for cities to potentially live in. We were looking for a decent-size city with a rich music scene. We settled on Boston, and it has been home ever since. The Boston music scene has had a huge influence on me. No matter what style of music I’m interested in, there seems to be a surplus of musicians to connect with and learn from. I feel both grateful and spoiled.

DF: You’ve played in a variety of groups, but have focused more of your energy on writing and solo work the past couple of years. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both?

MW: The advantage of being a sideman in someone else’s group is that you get to show up and play music without the burden of writing the songs, booking the gigs, coordinating rehearsals, etc. And if you pick projects with music and people you enjoy then there isn’t much of a downside. Leading your own project is more work, but in return you get to realize your own musical ideas.

DF: You sell your album “Nowhere to Land” directly from your website. Why did you decide to distribute it yourself rather than going through more traditional channels?

MW: You can purchase my album through places like iTunes and Amazon, but I decided to make it available from my website as well and to direct people there first. I figure if people are considering downloading it, then why not cut out the middleman. There’s something simple and sensible about buying music directly from the musician, especially now that technology makes selling directly more convenient. But this is all an experiment for me and may not be the most effective way to share my music.

DF: Speaking of “Nowhere to Land,” I had that song on repeat for most of a recent Friday afternoon. What was the inspiration for the song? 

MW: I’m so glad you like it! “Nowhere to Land” is meant to capture the sense in which life is a constantly changing process. We strive for stability in our careers, our relationships, our identities, etc., and it’s perfectly reasonable to do so. But no matter how stable our lives become, time doesn’t stop for us. We’re still always going somewhere. It’s just a strange feature of our circumstance and “Nowhere to Land” is my way of acknowledging it.

DF: If you had to pick one of your songs that defined you forever, which one would you choose and why?

MW: My first instinct was to pick “Nowhere to Land,” but I think I’ll go with “Nightlight.” I like that it’s simple, straightforward, and perhaps more widely relatable. It’s basically just a song about having a tough time and finding consolation in loved ones.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers and singer/songwriters?

MW: I think it’s important to find your own relationship to songwriting. Many people have strong opinions on how to write good songs. Some have strict views on third-person narrative versus first-person songs, whether to show versus tell, coherence of lyrics, etc. Some think you should always be writing songs to keep the writing muscles in shape. These are all ideas worth exploring, but your own creative instincts should be the driving force for your own music. If you like writing intermittently, that’s fine. If a certain tense speaks to you more than others, that’s fine too. Be willing to follow your instincts even if it parts ways with conventional wisdom. You never know what interesting things you might discover.

DF: Name one random fact about yourself.

MW: I have an irrational fear of frogs.

To learn more about Mark Whitaker, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, subscribe to his YouTube Channel, or follow him on Twitter @MarkSWhitaker.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Take Every New Opportunity as a Challenge: 9 Questions With Photographer Chris Cardoza

Photographer Chris Cardoza

Photographer Chris Cardoza

By Rachel Tyner

Chris Cardoza is an up-and-coming photographer based out of Boston. He began as a temp for Reebok International working in their video production department and quickly turned his new skills and connections into a full blown commercial photography and video production career, working with brands such as Reebok, NHL, Spartan Race, Spaulding Rehab, and ISlide.

I was fortunate to meet Chris at UMASS Amherst, where we both majored in Communication. Over the past three years since graduation he has developed not only professionally, but creatively.

Chris gave me the opportunity to ask him some questions about his career, as well as his advice for artists.

Rachel Tyner: At what age did you first pick up a camera? Have you always been interested in photography, or is this something that developed over time?

Chris Cardoza: I didn’t pick up a camera until I turned 20 years old and started a small production company with my best friend Keith Weiner (an extremely talented photographer and camera operator now in Los Angeles) called Pancakes 4 Life. We shot promo and event videos for small businesses in Massachusetts. Once I got my hands on a DSLR, which we were using for everything, I quickly became obsessed and filmed/photograped everything in sight. I have always been a tech nerd so that translated really well to modern DSLRs. Photography and filmmaking has really become the perfect fusion of creativity and technology for me which is why I am so passionate about the art.

Photo by Chris Cardoza

Photo by Chris Cardoza

RT: Who in your life has inspired (and/or encouraged) you the most to pursue your dreams? Who are your creative influences (writers, photographers, etc.)?

CC: Personally my parents have always encouraged me to pursue my dreams. They both owned and operated a pizza and catering business for over 10 years during my childhood and now my father is onto a new venture completely different and my mother is teaching at an elementary school. They have never settled for careers they did not enjoy or feel fulfillment from and encouraged me to do the same. From a professional level my greatest influences are photographers and filmmakers Chase Jarvis, Philip Bloom, Tom Lowe, John Loomis, Gary Land, Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger, and many others.

Photo by Chris Cardoza

Photo by Chris Cardoza

RT: What is the best advice someone ever gave you, and what would you say to any artist starting out? 

CC: This is a very tough one. Some of the best advice comes from a quote my father loves to tell me about luck. “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”—Seneca

I do feel like one of the luckiest people in this world with all the opportunities I have been given, so with all of this luck I try to really grasp these opportunities no matter how far fetched, outrageous or uncomfortable they may seem. I use to have a very negative first reaction to new opportunities, which was more of a fearful reaction, but now I take every new opportunity as a challenge. In terms of advice to artists starting out I would say be open to opportunities and do not let your ego or fear get in the way.

Photo by Chris Cardoza

Photo by Chris Cardoza

RT: On your website, you caption the photo below, “This one is what started everything.” What is the story behind the photo? Do you have a favorite photo that you’ve taken?

CC: I shot this while working for Reebok in the video production department. We flew out to San Francisco to film a piece about kids running in a new pair of shoes. Simultaneously there was a photoshoot for the shoes going on and one of the kids was tired toward the end of the day, so he decided to take a break and rest up against the wall. I was lucky enough to be right there in front of this incredible mural right when he leaned in. The photo gained a lot of attraction around the office and triggered something in me that said “Hey maybe I could capture these moments for a living.” This is one of the first photos I have taken with a professional camera and to this day is my favorite.

Photo by Chris Cardoza

Photo by Chris Cardoza

RT: You work with a lot of brands and commercial platforms. How do you balance keeping your own creative voice with portraying the brands' own message? Has this been a challenge?

CC: Luckily I have been able to work with some really talented people who notice that I work best when I am given a lot of freedom to get the right image or video sequence. Since they recognize my process and the results I get for them, most tend to allow me creative freedom. There are some shoots where I lose creative control but it is all part of the business. I try to balance those days with personal shoots or work with clients who give me freedom.

Photo by Chris Cardoza

Photo by Chris Cardoza

RT: On your website, you state that you are turning your multimedia studio in Norwood, Mass into a creative paradise. What exactly does “creative paradise” mean to you? And, can the Writer’s Bone crew stop by sometime…?

CC: Definitely come by! It basically means I want my studio to be as relaxing as possible with a plethora of inspiration. I have only had it for a couple months but so far I have filled it with adult bean bag chairs, a gaming desk, some art work, great music and photo books. My goal is to make it a place no one wants to leave and everyone wants to create. For my first year as a freelance photographer I worked strictly out of my apartment on edits which became very lonely and dull. I’m going for the opposite here, which has worked out great.

Photo by Chris Cardoza

Photo by Chris Cardoza

RT: You’ve had a lot of success in a short period of time. Something to be very proud of. What has been the most mind blowing part of your experience in the past three years, and what do you hope the next three years will hold for you?

CC: The most mind blowing experiences have to be my travels. Before starting my career, I rarely ever traveled outside of New England and now I have photographed in almost every major city in the United States. Next week I am headed to Rwanda to photograph and film for an amazing nonprofit, www.shootingtouch.com. The whole evolution and speed of my career so far definitely blows my mind and I am forever grateful for all of the people who have guided me and believed in a young creative so far. As for the future, I plan on traveling more, creating more personal photo and film series and working with even more amazing people. I would love to shoot for Vice and Sports Illustrated, too. That would be cool.

Photo by Chris Cardoza

Photo by Chris Cardoza

RT: Favorite beer? 5,000 Bonus points if it’s one from our “Happy Hour” page

CC: My favorite beer is Harpoon IPA but I do love a good Shipyard Pumpkinhead in the fall.

RT: What is one random fact about yourself?

CC: I can walk on stilts pretty well.

To learn more about Chris Cardoza, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @cdozaspeak and Instagram.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Promising Author Lindsey Palmer On Magazines, Teaching, and Publishing Her First Novel

Lindsey Palmer

Lindsey Palmer

By Stephanie Schaefer

I’ll shamelessly admit that that at any point in time I have a stack of magazines piled up in the corner of my room like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Getting a new mag in the mail each month has the magical power to turn any bad day around. Although iPad apps and the Internet have transformed the industry, there is something about the glossy pages, vibrant fashion spreads, and chic exposés that make sitting down with the latest print issue of Glamour or Marie Claire oh-so indulgent.

In her new fictional satire, Pretty in Ink, up-and-coming novelist Lindsey Palmer details the evolving world of women’s magazines, drawing upon her own experiences as an editor in the field. The debut novel is “filled with juicy gossip and outrageous office politics,” according to Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist says, “Palmer’s debut contains the authenticity of experience and the salacious story snippets fans of The Devil Wears Prada will appreciate.”

Palmer recently took time to chat with me about her writing process, literary inspirations, and Connie Britton’s (aka Mrs. Coach from “Friday Night Lights”) fabulous hair. I for one can’t wait to sit down with a glass of wine and indulge in the drama-filled pages of Palmer’s new novel. If you’re a magazine fan like me, look for Pretty in Ink in bookstores March 25 (available for pre-order on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and IndieBound), or hear Palmer read an excerpt at Boston’s Trident Booksellers & Cafe on April 16!

Stephanie Schaefer: Did you know at an early age that you wanted to be a writer? Who were your inspirations?

Lindsey Palmer: I definitely wrote stories from the time I figured out how to form sentences. In fact, I recently visited my parents’ house and found a book of stories I wrote as an 8-year-old, which were sort of hilarious. It was full of silly plot twists and what passes for a third grader’s deep thoughts. Still, I’m not sure I thought about what it meant to be a writer until I was much older. Writing is just a mode of being for me, the way in which I’ve always attempted to make sense of the world.

I was always a big bookworm, reading whatever I could get my hands on, but it was in my high school A.P. Literature class when I first encountered novelists and poets who completely blew my mind (and I love this fact because now I teach A.P. Literature): Robert Penn Warren, John Fowles, Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger, Mary Oliver, Wallace Stevens, Toni Morrison, Eavan Boland, and more. I couldn’t believe what these writers could accomplish with the same 26 letters of the alphabet that all of us have access to. In college writing classes, I found a lot of inspiration from the likes of Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Lynn Sharon Schwartz, and Mona Simpson, as well as from my fellow classmates, some of whom have gone on to publish beautiful books (for example, Alicia Oltuski and Ariel Djanikian).

SS: You’ve interviewed some pretty high-profile women—including Michelle Obama and Connie Britton—while working in the magazine industry. Do you have a favorite celebrity moment?

LP: I’m a big fan of NPR’s "This American Life," so interviewing host Ira Glass was a favorite moment. We spoke over the phone, and it was kind of amazing to hear this voice that I knew so well from the show answering my questions. It was a surreal experience, like the radio was speaking to me.

SS: I have to ask—Is Connie Britton’s hair as fabulous as it looks on TV?

LP: Yes, her hair is amazing! As someone who has always longed for long hair but could never really pull it off, I was in awe. And Connie Britton was so lovely and gracious, as was her former “Friday Night Lights” television husband, Kyle Chandler (aka Coach Taylor).

SS: Your upcoming novel, Pretty in Ink, is a satire on the world of women’s magazines. Can you tell me a little more about the novel and how you crafted your characters and plot?

LP: In terms of crafting plot, after working for years at women’s magazines—at Glamour, then Redbook, then Self—I not only felt I knew this world backward and forward, I also believed it would make an ideal backdrop for a novel. Especially in a post-2008 world, in the era of economic meltdown and recessionary downsizing, I thought this world would work really well for a thrilling piece of fiction. On page one of my novel, the editor-in-chief of the fictional magazine Hers gets fired, which sets in motion the kind of upheaval and staff reshuffling that will be familiar to anyone who’s collected a paycheck (or tried to) in the past five years. I lived through this kind of experience, and I took notes. Those notes eventually became the novel. The characters are not based on real people; rather, they’re combinations of different attitudes and traits either that I felt or had personally or that I saw in others. With the cast of characters, I tried to represent the range of perspectives and personalities that tend to make up a magazine masthead.

SS: How did you go about getting your work published?

LP: I wrote another novel years ago, reached out to a slew of agents (whom I found through acquaintances and colleagues, through acknowledgment pages of some of my favorite books, and through random Google searches), and received back a slew of really kind and encouraging rejection letters. So when it came to the second time around, I had those names filed away to reach out to again. I ended up signing with Joelle Delbourgo, who runs her own company and was a wonderful match for me; not only does she have years of experience as an agent, but she also worked for decades as an editor and so brings that editorial eye to the table, too. Her wise feedback helped me reshape my novel from something decent to something I could feel really proud of. Then, she pitched a bunch of editors. The book found a home at Kensington, a small publisher that focuses on smart women’s fiction.

SS: I’m impressed to read that you also have a Master’s in English Education! Has being an English teacher influenced your writing?

LP: It’s been really fun to work with young writers who bring so much enthusiasm and a fresh eye to their work. It’s interesting and inspiring to read their writing, and it’s also useful for me to go back to basics, thinking through how plot and character and setting and pacing work in order to be able to teach it. All of that is the good stuff. The not-so-good stuff is that the reality of having 150 students and teaching three separate courses every day. I have way less free time to write than I used to. I’m hoping I can dedicate my summer to writing.

SS: The editorial industry today is certainly changing. What advice can you give to young, hopeful writers?

LP: Write and read as much as you can. That is the best—and probably only—way to improve as a writer, and good quality writing will always eventually find a home. As heartbreaking as it felt when I wrote my first novel and didn’t manage to get it published, I now see those years of writing and revising as wonderful practice. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without that experience, and I won’t be the writer I will hopefully be in five years without the writing practice I’m doing now.

SS: What is one random fact about yourself?

LP: When I was a kid I twirled baton and competed in Miss Majorette competitions. This has proved to be useful in adult life only in terms of the outfits’ potential for Halloween costumes.

You can learn more about Lindsey Palmer by visiting her official website or liking her Facebook page. 

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive