Writing Ritual: 12 Questions With Author Rebecca Dinerstein

Writing Ritual: 12 Questions With Author Rebecca Dinerstein

Author Rebecca Dinerstein’s debut novel, The Sunlit Night, landed on our most recent “5 Books That Need To Be On Your Radar” because of its charming quirkiness. And, maybe, the delicious baked goods supplied by the fictional Gregoriov Bakery!

Setting Off Sparks With Poet Lisa Chen

Lisa Chen

Lisa Chen

By Sean Tuohy

Poet Lisa Chen guides readers through vivid landscapes filled with lively characters and weird plot lines. While reading Chen’s poetry collection “Mouth,” you’ll find yourself transported from Chinese ghost stories to tales of assassins on deadly missions by short but beautifully written sentences.

Chen agreed to sit down and talk with me about her writing process, poetry, and what she feels when she’s done writing for the day.

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Lisa Chen: I suppose early on, as with many other writers, you write things and a few people who are not your parents tell you that have some talent, and this buoys you and you write some more. That early encouragement is important. But that moment of knowing when you want to be a writer is less interesting to me than what it means to be a writer, which isn’t easy because the criteria is writing itself.

Earlier this year there was a story in The New York Times about a painter who, after receiving some initial critical attention in the 1970s, struggled to sustain notice. He withdrew from the “art world” and vanished into obscurity. But he never stopped painting. When he died, he left behind some 400 paintings. He was an artist.

ST: What authors did you worship growing up?

LC: Stretching the notion of “worship” and “growing up:” Laurence Yep, John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, Emily Bronte, Kafka, Emily Dickinson, Cesar Vallejo, Maxine Hong Kingston, Yasunari Kawabata, Leonard Michaels, Paul Beatty, James Salter, Chris Kraus.

ST: What was the first poem that you read that made a real connection with you?

LC: Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.” A 24-word, eight-line heavyweight of atmosphere and meaning.

An important book, development-wise: An anthology Robert Hass assigned in his undergraduate poetry workshop at UC Berkeley, Another Republic: 17 European and South American Writers, eds. Mark Strand and Charles Simic. It was my first introduction to writers like Calvino, Cortazar, Ponge, Parra.

As one gets older and becomes a more discerning reader, it’s sometimes hard to remember how influential and explosive a great anthology can be. It’s like walking off the street into a party where you don’t know anyone.

ST: As a writer what is the biggest challenge you face?

LC: The Internet.

ST: How important is it for a writer to set tone early in their writing?

LC: Hm. But doesn’t every poem/story/book have its own gravitational force when it comes to tone? It gets reset depending on the thing being made. I reflexively bristle whenever I read a review of a film or a collection of short stories in which the critic gripes about how the tone changes. Why is that a bad thing? Maybe my definition of tone is buzzing at a different frequency.

ST: For “Mouth” you pulled inspiration from your email’s spam folder. Where else do you pull inspiration from?

LC: Human behavior on subways, advertisements, news items, conversation, "On Kawara," the Chris Marker retrospective at BAM, Young Jean Lee’s approach to playwriting, Hokusai’s 100 Views of Mount Fuji, Myrtle Avenue, the commercial strip nearest where I live in Fort Greene.

One project I’m working on right now is inspired by the performance artist Tehching Hsieh whose works include spending one year punching a clock once every hour, one year spent locked in a cage, one year spent entirely outdoors, no roofs. So for one year I have been gathering “material”—both directly about his art, but also from the effect and experience of time passing in my own life. The project may all fall apart, but for now it provides a constraint and a structure to filter my corner of the universe. Certain things as I experience them in real time start vibrating and setting off sparks because they provoke the project and vice versa.

ST: What is your writing process like?

LC: A few hours of productive bliss followed by many more hours of self-loathing, doubt, not-writing. Repeat.

ST: How long does it take you to write a poem?

LC: Three hours to five years. That three hours bit is probably a lie. The moment of pure invention is usually brief, and rarely immaculate. Then comes everything else.

ST: What advice do you give to first-time writers?

LC: Read a lot, ask other people what they’re reading, experiment with form, write badly, write to people you know, be in and of the broader world. Very few people care if you write a poem or publish a book. Write anyway.

ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?

LC: “Lisa” is not the name I was born with. Like with many other immigrants, it was assumed I would take on an Americanized name when I moved here. My stepfather, who met my mother via Adamsville, Ala., the Vietnam War, and Taipei, drew up a shortlist of possibilities, which included “Ginger” and “Mary Ann.” I chose my name because I thought it would be easiest to remember, clocking in at four letters.

To learn more about Lisa Chen, visit her official website.


A Conversation With Writer, Poet, and Comedian Bucky Sinister

Bucky Sinister

Bucky Sinister

By Sean Tuohy

Reading Bucky Sinister is like reading the inner workers of a dream being created. Bucky’s new novel Black Hole is a cocktail of dark humor mixed with characters ready to leap off the page.

Sinister (what an awesome name!) took a few moments to sit down and talk to me about writing, punk rock, and creative fuel.

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Bucky Sinister: In 1987, I heard Black Flag's “Family Man” record. There's a whole spoken word side of that record. I had never heard anything like it. I was immediately captivated. I wanted to do it.

I grew up with aspirations of being an evangelist, but earlier that year I had lost my faith. I had no more place in the world. Society as a whole looked like a lie. The church offered nothing for me anymore. I turned to them for help and got none.

That's when I found the punk world, and subculture in general. I can't explain to anyone who grew up in an Internet world how difficult this was to find. Everything was like a secret you had to uncover by knowing someone cool or reading a zine. I wanted to belong in this world, not just watch it go by, and here was this thing I could do: I was good at talking to groups of people.

I was doing a lot of tape trading then, which is what we did before file sharing, and I ended up with these cassettes of Giorno Poetry Systems albums. It was this really great record label that put out comps like the “Smack My Crack” record. It was where I got exposed to a lot of bands like The Swans and The Butthole Surfers but also to writers like Jim Carroll and William S. Burroughs.

I still didn't really connect it with books. It was more of a performance thing. I wanted to write for spoken word shows. I didn't care about anything in print.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1988. I went to open mikes, partly because they were free. I heard real poets there, who were also really good live. I had no idea you could say the things they were saying. Their message was so far beyond the punk band lyrics. That's when I found the little magazines, the local poetry rags, and such. There was one reading in the Midnight Special Bookstore, which had a really good poetry section. The open mikers showed me which books they liked. I would show up there early and stand around in the poetry section and read. I think that's when I wanted to write a book.

ST: Which authors did you worship growing up?

BS: I grew up fundamentalist, so I loved CS Lewis. During a hard time in high school, I was befriended by a great group of nerds, who loved The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. I read those pretty much to be in on the joke.

I didn't really have a fire lit under me until I read Charles Bukowski's Ham On Rye when I was 19, after I had moved to Los Angeles. I moved to all the obvious counterculture stuff: Hunter S. Thompson, Burroughs, beat poets, some of the Black Sparrow authors like Wanda Coleman, Eileen Myles, and Jim Carroll. Then there were harder to find books like Adulterer's Anonymous by Exene Cervenka and Lydia Lunch, and Rollins was putting out chapbooks that I bought at Hi De Ho Comics.

Bukowski freed me. It was the first story I had ever read about a kid who grew up in an abusive childhood, and he just shook it the fuck off. Somehow I would be okay. He also destroyed all the rules for American poets. There's a lot of obnoxious Bukowski fans, and a lot of people hate him without reading his work, but I don't know if anyone's ever written anything better than his output from 1960–72. I catch shit for liking his work, people put it down, but I still reread it and find things in there at 46 I didn't notice at 19.

I moved to San Francisco and met a bunch of people who were into cyberpunk stuff, so I got into William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, George Alec Effinger, KW Jeter, and John Shirley. This also led me to Philip K Dick, which was a huge deal for me. This book definitely would not be the same without Dr. Adder or City Come A-Walkin'. This also coincided with a big meth streak I was on. I'd get high at a party and go home and read all night.

There were also a ton of local writers in San Francisco. Black Hole was heavily influenced by Jon Longhi and Peter Plate. I was part of a scene there that included Michelle Tea, Beth Lisick, Daphne Gottlieb, Justin Chin, and many more. A. Razor was, and is, a close friend of mine from those days, and we had a lot of adventures together. There's like, 30 people I've left off this list, whose writing I competed with week after week. I was pushing to keep up with them.

ST: Where did the plotline for Black Hole come from? Was it based on anything personal?

BS: I had a recurring dream where I worked at the mini-whale company. In the dream, I would remember my waking life as if it were a dream. It was really messing with my head.

I tried to keep the dream structure for the novel. I wanted it to be in and out, recurring imagery, inconsistency-ridden, and just not make sense in the way that dreams don't make sense when you're thinking about them.

When you're doing drugs, especially meth, you end up talking for hours and hours, sometimes days. You hear the weirdest shit, and people tell you with the utmost sincerity. I wanted this book to have that feel, of the rambling nightmare conspiracies you hear on the second day of meth, when you're trying to not come down.

This is all either stuff I've dreamed, seen, or heard, and some of it is true, but only believable when I wrap it in bullshit. I did know a conspiracy theorist who covered himself in shit and got 5150'd and had both his arms amputated and was found dead with a syringe in his neck. I did know a 500-pound crack head junky thief who lived in the Tenderloin. I did move to the Bay three months after Op Ivy broke up and regretted it ever since. Last week I met a bodybuilder who gets $800 to let fetishists touch his arms while they masturbate, and I really thought I made that part up. So I'm not sure what is real or not.

ST: The opening paragraph to Black Hole is one of the funniest and most honest things I have read in a while. How important is it for a writer to set a tone early in their work?

BS: That paragraph was originally about 40 pages in. But I really loved how it sounded. So I put it first. In standup comedy, you find a few jokes that are essential: your opener and your closer. I read that paragraph on my second draft, and knew it was my opener. I thought it was abrupt, but fuck it.

ST: What kind of connection do you want to form with your reader?

BS: I hope this book entertains the ordinary reader. I hope recovering drug addicts find another layer of humor. We're funny people. You will never find darker humor than in recovery.

ST: What kind of writer are you: Outline and then write or just write and see what happens?

BS:  I write everything I can think of, and then remove what doesn't belong. Then I rearrange it. I don't write sequentially.

ST: What advice do you give to aspiring writers?

BS: Read at least one book a week and write 10 pages a week. After two years, you'll have read 100 books and written 1,000 pages. If you're not better after that, quit. Your last 10 pages should be drastically better than your first 10 pages.

I came up when television sucked and there was no Internet. I had little else to kill time with other than reading. I read a lot. You need that. A new writer today needs to sacrifice other distractions and get those books in.

A lot of people can't get that first manuscript done. Just get it done, It's okay if it's bad. Just finish it and write another one. Too many writers wait for some thing that will never come to get started. Start now.

This is my seventh book. I'm 46. I can't get literary representation. I want to. I hope to. But if I don't, fuck it. The literary world knows who I am, they just don't care. Still want to be a writer? It can be done. It won't be on your terms.

A lot of people want to be authors, but not so many want to be writers. They want to sign a hardcover for a line of adoring fans after whisper-reading the first chapter to a crowded bookstore. They want to be interviewed on NPR. They want to complainbrag about how different the movie is from their book. They want to be at whatever events Dave Eggers and David Sedaris go to. They want to say something insightful to the press when David Foster Wallace kills himself. But they don't want to write, they don't want to go through the extraction process and run the gauntlet of rejection trying to get it published.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

BS: I compete twice a year in Russian kettlebell sport.

To learn more about Bucky Sinister, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @bucky_sinister.


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


Master of Disguise: 11 Questions With Author Erica Wright

Erica Wright (Photo courtesy of the author)

Erica Wright (Photo courtesy of the author)

By Daniel Ford

I’ll have plenty more to say about Erica Wright’s The Red Chameleon in next week’s 5 Books That Should Be On Your Radar post, but for now I’ll tell you that Wright’s main character, private investigator Kathleen Stone (or is it Kat? Or Katie? Or Katya?), is the perfect blend of brassy, troubled, and master of disguise.

Wright talked to me recently about what she wanted to do before discovering writing, the origins behind The Red Chameleon, and how she fell in love with her characters.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to be a writer, or was it a desire that built up over time?

Erica Wright: I wanted to be a zoologist until eighth grade biology class when we dissected a frog, and I passed out. My teacher was close with my mother and thought, "How am I going to call Paula and tell her that I killed her daughter." I survived, though, so they're still friends. I have been writing poems and stories for as long as I can remember, but never considered pursuing publication until my twenties. I grew up in a town of 500 people, and while their professions are varied (the coolest is a beekeeper who owns her own farm), there are no novelists that I know of. So it was a gradual realization that I could write for a wider audience than myself.

DF: Who were some of your early influences in the crime genre, and which modern crime writers are you currently hooked on?

EW: The first book I remember re-reading as a child was Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. It's not a mystery, but it set the tone for my gothic interests. I've never met a ghost tour I didn't like. In college I went through a Poe phase, but also enjoyed Doyle. (Do we have to say Sir Doyle?) I'm pretty sure that I would still be obsessed with the BBC "Sherlock" if I'd never read The Hounds of Baskerville, but there's also something fun about re-imagining the classic stories. In terms of modern mystery writers, I'll read anything by Sara Gran or Megan Abbott. And I love my press mate M. R. C. Kasasian's Gower Street Detective books, another take on Sherlock Holmes.  

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

EW: My background is in poetry, so my favorite part of fiction writing is the routine. With a new poem, there's a lot of work that doesn't feel like work. You're walking around the block, thinking about whether "shatter" or "shudder" works better in stanza three. When focusing on a novel, I set daily goals for myself, say, two hours or two thousand words. While I might have to heavily edit what I produce, the effort is satisfying. I didn't use an outline for the first draft of The Red Chameleon, preferring the so-called "pants-ing" method. Of course, that meant that the first draft needed some overhauls to get the plot in shape. I used a loose outline for its sequel, The Granite Moth, and have a detailed outline for the third book. Maybe next time I'll be done experimenting and can settle on an approach that works every time. Probably not.

DF: Where did the idea for The Red Chameleon originate? 

EW: I started teaching in the English Department of John Jay College of Criminology in the fall of 2006. My students were pursuing careers I knew nothing about. They wanted to be detectives, forensic specialists, CIA operatives, FBI agents. I started researching these fields to have something to talk about during our conferences. Since most graduates would end up in the New York Police Department, I became somewhat familiar with the training requirements and different opportunities. While I hoped that none of them would go undercover, an often dangerous and demoralizing job, I was fascinated with this small part of police operations. I was also reading a lot of mystery writers at the time—Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, M. C. Beaton—so looking back, it almost seems inevitable that I started tinkering with this book. At the time, it surprised me.

DF: How much of yourself ended up in your main character Kathleen Stone?

EW: In his book Here Is New York, E. B. White writes, "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy." I remember reading that opening sentence in the Strand bookstore and feeling a thrilling jolt of recognition. Small town life has its advantages, but privacy isn't one of them. I lived in the city for 13 years, and it was great that nobody knew what I was doing unless I told them. Kat takes her need for privacy to whole other paranoid (rightfully, it turns out) level, but I definitely share that impulse.

DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?

EW: I fell in love with the characters as I wrote, particularly Dolly. I sat down to write a scene that conveyed Kat's wigmaker, Vondya Vasiliev, as a sort of mother figure. Then Dolly, a drag queen at a famous club called The Pink Parrot, was there, just hanging out. In the books, Dolly sort of insists on being Kat's friend, and that's how I felt about him as a character, too. He insisted on being in the book. What I mean to say is that when I finished my first draft, I knew I couldn't abandon any of these people even though the plot in general and many scenes in particular needed some major rewrites.

DF: The Red Chameleon has gotten some great reviews from the likes of The New York Times Book Review, O Magazine, and Publisher’s Weekly. What has that experience been like?

EW: Fainting goats have nothing on me. As might be obvious from my frog story, if I'm overwhelmed, I fall right over. I managed not to pass out when I read The Times review, but I started sweating and my ears started ringing. It has meant a lot to me that reviewers have written about my book. Not only is it a debut, but it's out from an independent publisher. Even the ambivalent responses haven't bothered me because I know how much effort it takes to read a book and articulate a viewpoint. Book people are the best people.

DF: How do you balance writing and marketing your work (i.e. book tours, engaging with readers on social media, etc.)?

EW: I set aside a little time each week for what I think of as the business side of writing. I see if I have any work that's ready to be sent out, query bookstores about readings, make sure my website doesn't look too amateurish. Last week, I spent an hour creating a newsletter signup form via MailChimp. (My brother's a tech genius, so hopefully he's not reading this. I'm sure that should have taken me about five minutes.) In general, though, I think it's better not to stress about self-promotion. I definitely post to Facebook and Twitter about personal news, but try to make sure that the majority of what I share is about other people. Or, you know, breaking taxidermy news.

DF: What’s next for Erica Wright and Kathleen Stone?

EW: A sequel to The Red Chameleon, The Granite Moth, will be released this November, so lots more shenanigans.

DF: What advice would you give aspiring authors?

EW: Root for others as much as you root for yourself. And if that sounds cheesy, I promise that it's actually kind of selfish, too. If you celebrate the success of friends, you get to have a lot more cake.

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

EW: I was named after Erica Kane, Susan Lucci's character from "All My Children." Well, “named after” might be a bit of a stretch, but my mother watched the show and liked the name, so here I am. No Emmy, but I do like a good villain. 

To learn more about Erica Wright, visit her official website or follow her on Twitter @eawright.


The Storymaker: A Conversation With Novelist John Benditt

John Benditt

John Benditt

By Daniel Ford

Here’s the first two lines of the description for author John Benditt’s debut novel The Boatmaker:

A fierce, complicated, silent man wakes from a fever dream compelled to build a boat and sail away from the small island where he was born. The boat carries him to the next, bigger, island, where he becomes locked in a drunken and violent affair whose explosion propels him all the way to the mainland.

That’s what we like here at Writer’s Bone.

Benditt writes in such an earthy and rhythmic tone and so deftly tackles issues that plague humanity that one forgets his previous profession was as a science journalist for the likes of Scientific American and Technology Review. He answered some of my questions recently about how he developed his voice, his inspiration for The Boatmaker, and how his journalism background helped his fiction writing.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer and how did you develop your voice?

John Benditt: I’ve known that I wanted to be a writer since I was sixteen. It wasn’t really something I chose; it chose me. I had other ideas, generally more practical ideas, about what I wanted to be. But that was what I was. I think my voice emerged first by imitating writers I liked and later by just writing and writing, even though what I was writing wasn’t very good.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

JB: My first influences were poets, since that’s what I wanted to be. The biggest early influence was Robert Creeley. I loved how spare his poems were, how chiseled they were, how much was left out. Creeley led me to William Carlos Williams, whom I loved as a poet, a prose-poet, and also as a writer of fiction. He wrote three great novels about his wife and his wife’s family. More people should read them.

DF: You’re a science journalist by trade, so I’m curious if any of those skills transferred over to writing fiction. What is your writing process like in general?

JB: I think journalism, if it’s done well, enforces clarity and the need to get the reader through the story to the end; those are skills every writer should have. My writing process begins with little bits and pieces scribbled on scraps of paper that later coalesce into something larger.

DF: Where did the idea for The Boatmaker originate?

JB: The Boatmaker began as a short story, written for a fiction workshop I was taking at the New School with Catherine Texier, who is a wonderful teacher. I wrote the story for a collection of short stories I thought I was writing at the time. The story was about a man who builds a boat and sails away from the little island where he was born. Later I wrote a second story about the same character when he reaches his first destination, Big Island. I thought I was done with him. But apparently he wasn’t done with me. That’s when a lot of other bits and pieces of his story began to appear.

DF: How did you go about developing your main character? In the novel, he’s reacting to a lot of things he’s never experienced, so how did you put yourself in his mindset in order to tell your story?

JB: Mostly it was a question of being receptive. The boatmaker arrived with a pretty fully developed personality and way of seeing things. I just tried to stay out of the way of that. I was tempted to prettify him a little, but I tried to avoid that. He is what he is.

DF: Your book touches on subjects that tend to spark intense debate—religion, race, etc. What were some of the ways you made your themes original while also tackling these issues?

JB: The story kept coming in, as I mentioned, in bits and pieces. And it held my interest. So I kept following along. I wasn’t thinking at all about “themes,” such as religion or race, while I was writing. I was just interested in the story of the boatmaker. When I was finished, I realized that these themes were there. But I didn’t pay much attention to them while I was writing, at least as themes. I just wanted to do justice to the story—to make it as vivid and compelling as it had seemed to me.

DF: Your use of language is so earthy and primal. Did that come out during the writing or was it fine-tuned during the editing process?

JB: Something of the tone was there in the original short story, which was called “Big Island.” But it evolved during the writing and editing. It got simpler, and it found a groove. The published book is definitely the outcome of a lot of polishing and weighing individual words and sentences. And a lot of deft suggestions from my editor, Meg Storey at Tin House.

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

JB: I have a bunch of short stories I’ve been working on. I also have the first part of a memoir about my father, who was a famous scientist. I suspect that the idea for another novel will also emerge, more or less the way The Boatmaker did. I’ve been blown off course enough times now to suspend judgment when it comes to plans for my writing.

DF: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

JB: Keep writing. I read somewhere an English writer said: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t give up.” I like that.

DF: Can you name one random fact about yourself?

JB: If I named it, would it still be random?

To learn more about John Benditt, visit his official website. 


A Poet At Heart: 8 Questions With Author Quan Barry

By Daniel Ford

I first became aware of author Quan Barry by picking up her novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born at the bookstore. However, when I emailed her to set up this interview, she mentioned that she is also a published poet!

Soon after, several of her poetry collections landed on my doorstep and I had the pleasure of discovering her distinct use of language and form.

Barry also graciously answered some of my questions about how she got hooked on writing, her favorite poet, and how the writing processes for poetry and fiction differ.

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

Quan Barry: When I was an undergraduate, I lived in a suite with two girls who were serious journalers. As the end of each day I would watch them writing furiously, some of which they shared. I was amazed that people would write things just for fun and not for class. Sure, I used to do that kinda stuff when I was a kid, but I hadn't written like that for years. After watching these two suitemates, I decided to take a creative writing class, and voila! I was hooked.

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

QB: I've always loved the work of W.S. Merwin. As I became a more serious student of poetry, I read his body of work much more closely. It was amazing to see how he evolved from rather formal beginnings to the poet we think of today, whose unpunctuated work relies pretty heavily on the reader to pull meaning out of the text. I once saw Merwin read when I was an undergrad, and I still remember how he ended the evening with this long poem called "Lives of the Artists," which is an amazing poem about the life of a Native American youth. In general, I love the collection by Merwin that contains this poem, a collection titled Travels—there's a poem in it called "A Distance" that I adore, adore, adore. I can't necessarily tell you what's happening in that poem, but it ends with three questions: "what/ are you holding above your head child/ where are you taking it what does it know."

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?

QB: Because I also write fiction, I've noticed that my poems have started to get longer and longer. I used to be able to write really short lyric poems no problem, but now sometimes the fiction side of me struggles with this, which means that occasionally I'll decide to write a seven-line poem. I think the seven-line poem is the perfect poem the way an egg is the perfect food. Seven lines gives you just enough time to get something done but not too much time to mess it up.

Having said all this, I don't usually have a line length in mind. I mostly just let the poem dictate how long it wants to be.

DF: It seems to me that word choice in poetry is so important, and you use some great language in your collections. Do you reach for the dictionary or thesaurus as your writing, or do you make choices in the editing process? 

QB: No, I'm not a dictionary or thesaurus nut. In my second collection, Controvertibles, I definitely had some big words sprinkled here and there throughout some of the poems. But they were words that I was fascinated with, specifically by the mere fact that they existed. Words like "recipiscence," which can mean "knowledge after the fact.” That word is basically the story of my life!

DF: Your novel She Weeps Each Time You're Born was published this past February and garnered rave reviews. Why the change in genre and was your writing process any different?

QB: In short, I've always wanted to be a writer, not necessarily a poet or a novelist or a playwright etc., just a good ole-fashioned John Updike-like writer (I wish!). Updike basically did it all, and to me, trying your hand at different genres is one way to keep challenging yourself and to stay fresh.

The writing process between poetry and fiction is vastly different because honestly, I'm now in to place where I can write poems fairly quickly, but writing a novel takes serious amounts of time and revising, both of which are not my strong suit. Narrative and plot aren't that hard for me (i.e. moving my characters from point A to Point B), but I have a load of other problems. In poetry, if I mention something one time, then I can trust my reader to remember it. In general, we tend to read poems closer and more carefully because they're short. In fiction, I can't just mention something once, as is my tendency, and count on my reader to remember it 10 or even hundreds of pages later. I have to give my reader more than I'm used to without over explaining, and since I'm a poet at heart, this is always a battle for me.

DF: Now that you have a novel under your belt, do you think you’ll return to poetry or stick with fiction writing for a while?

QB: I intend to keep writing both. I'm also hoping to do some more work on two plays I wrote a few years back. Someday I'd like to have a play produced, but that's admittedly way down the pike.

DF: What advice would you give to aspiring poets and up-and-coming authors?

QB: Read, read, read, and read broadly. I was just talking about this with the poet Derek Mong. Basically we were agreeing that sometimes young writers just read first books in their genres. This can get to be stultifying. Yes, it's good to know what first books look like and how they're constructed, but if that's all you read, your work may end up sounding like everyone else's and one day it may also read as dated.

DF: Can you name one random fact about you?

QB: It's a definite humble brag, but I'm incredibly fortunate to be able to say that I've set foot on all seven continents.


Maybe I’m A Panda: 8 Questions With Author Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek

By Dave Pezza

After reading a rave review in The New York Times Book Review for Stuart Dybek’s Ecstatic Cahoots, I picked myself up a copy and fell in love with his beautiful prose.

Dybek answered some of my questions recently about his style, Chicago, and creative writing’s place in the age of advanced technology.

Dave Pezza: Was writing always an ambition of yours? Was there ever a decisive moment when you knew crafting stories was a calling?

Stuart Dybek: I actually have an essay on the subject of discovering metaphor in fourth grade—but it is too long to reprise here. Writing caught my attention as an art around 17 in senior year of high school, around the same time I fell in love with jazz. The two have always felt related to me on a purely subjective level.

DP: I’m just about finished with one of your latest collections Ecstatic Cahoots, where you have managed to beautifully blend piecemeal narrative story telling with a poetic style of diction. There seems to be so much worked into such a small amount of words. Do these vignettes take a long time to develop and mold?

SD: Those short pieces are often worked over the way a poem is, but, on the other hand, I don’t want to single them out, as longer pieces can take as much work. One hopes the short ones, like poems, will invite a reader to reread them.

DP: Chicago is a reoccurring setting in your fiction; the city’s almost a character of its own in some of your stories. Does the Windy City still draw a lot of creative power from you?

SD: I grew up in a very urban inner city area, and so it is probably safe to say that by nature I’m at heart an urban writer, and depicting the city—for me, it’s Chicago—is akin to creating a huge back drop canvas whose imagery and mood both expresses and impacts the story. But it doesn’t have to be a city. Some of my stories depict other places.

DP: Speaking of Chicago, you are the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University. Tell us a little about working closely with the University’s writing program?

SD: NU is a school that is deeply invested in writing of all kinds. There’s an MFA program that I teach in Continuing Studies. Most of the students are older and working day jobs—cops, reporters, librarians, high school teachers. It’s a pleasure to teach because it’s a population that has work to write about. I also teach an undergrad workshop in writing fabulism that I pretty much developed for NU, and that class has been a revelation. Each quarter at least one student at age 20 or 21 writes a publishable story. I tried it as an experiment, but now I won’t teach anything else.

DP: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers looking for writing programs in either the undergraduate or graduate level?

SD: One learns writing as one learns the other arts: by doing. Want to play sax. Get a sax and start practicing. A good teacher can help make you better, accelerate the learning curve. Same with writing, only your medium is abstract: words. The craft isn’t so obvious as it is for music, but it is there, and you need to learn it by writing, practicing—i.e. rewriting—and reading like crazy.

DP: Many of your stories are set in a pre-technologically saturated America. Is that time period you’re most comfortable period of experience to draw from, or do you think there is something more romantic about landlines and photographs hidden in drawers instead of in digital clouds?

SD: I think we’re living in an age when the old and new technologies are cohabiting. The story you are referring to actually had a version in which the nude photo is hidden on a computer. I liked that one particular piece better with a hidden photo so that affected my choice, but only in the case of that particular story. What I love about your question though is its implication, which I totally agree with. You mostly can’t simply trade one for the other. Changing the technology in the story usually changes the final effect.

DP: Do you have any good book or poetry collection recommendations? We’re always looking for a good read here at Writer’s Bone.

SD: Edward Hirsch’s book-length poem Gabriel and Fady Joudah’s book that won the 2007 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition with an introduction by Louise Gluck who judged it wonderful. It is called The Earth in the Attic.

DP: Last one, swear. Can you tell us something random or surprising about yourself?

SD: I can leave you with a haiku I wrote at a Japanese restaurant with my two little grand kids, Nat and Jules:

I look into my bowl of miso soup
And see a panda.
Maybe I’m a panda.

To learn more about Stuart Dybek, check out his biography on Northwestern’s website or like his Facebook page.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Getting Over Writer's Block: 9 Questions With Annalise Sierra

Annalise Sierra

Annalise Sierra

By Sean Tuohy

One of the key elements of writing is that you have to share your writings with others. If you’re like me, you nervously hand your work-in-process to a peer and hope they don't notice all the misspellings. However, there are plenty of other ways to share, such as Annalise Sierra’s The Writer's Block. The Reno, Nev.-based showcase is an open mic for writers to help others share and craft their work.

Sierra was recently able to sit and chat a little bit about her on going showcase and to discuss the finer points of reading your work in public.

Sean Tuohy: Tell us about your background. What is your back story?

Annalise Sierra: Well, I might as well tell you, I was quite the rebellious child. To add to my charm, I happened to be very stubborn with an incredible will to (almost always) break my mother's strict rules for safety. The only peace she ever had from me was when I would get lost in a book or was busy writing poetry.

She taught me to read and write when I was close to 4 years old, but comprehension probably didn't kick in until much later. I was very fortunate she taught me these two essentials at an early age because it helped me search for answers I wasn't sure I was looking for.

I remember when I was about 5 or 6 years old, I decided to start my own business. I was writing poems in rhyme for my neighbors in my apartments. It was a friendly community so I wasn't shy about putting some poetry in their mail slots. I kindly asked for a quarter if they liked my work. I was giving it away for free. That's how you lure them in.

I'll never forget how embarrassed my mother felt when she found out I was asking our neighbors for quarters. She felt embarrassed, but I felt proud. This was probably one of the rare times I actually knew what I wanted out of life. I was sure (and, without a doubt, know) I could write every single day of my life and it would never get old.

ST: Where did the idea for The Writer's Block come from?

AS: I heard there was going to be a writing show at my favorite open mic, RMP (Reno Music Project) Acoustic Open Mic at Wildflower Village. I approached the man who was coordinating the events at the time, Michael Mac Millan. I pretty much threw myself at him (respectfully, of course) and did my best to convince him I'd be the best host ever. He eventually caved, but he claims he caved rather quickly and invited me to the Wildflower meeting the following Tuesday and bam: The Writer's Block was born.

ST: How long have you been running the show?

AS: I am proud to say I've been running this show since the very beginning. March 13, a month after my birthday exactly. The Writer's Block seemed like a late birthday present, but one worth waiting for and a dream come true.

ST: Is it hard for writers to go on stage and share their work?

AS: Hey now, writers are people too! We come in different shapes and sizes, as well as different egos and capacities for how much attention we can handle in a 10-minute set. People who read short stories or parts of their novel seem to go much smoother because you read until your time is up. Poets are a little different. There is something about them. They seem to be shy, and stay shy, no matter how many times they've been to the show. They still blush a little when you compliment their work. It's endearing to hear their words from their lips: personal, touching, raw.

ST: What is the most common type of story read at the event?

AS: Honestly, I don't think we have "common.” Us writers seem to be an unusual bunch. We have a funny man in a red suit and hat, a charming cowboy who is very authentic, a barefoot monk, a cross-dresser who teases us with steamy stories from when he used to be a call boy, a lovely schoolteacher who speaks boldly about love, and a very tall poet on the shy side and surprises me with his dark work. We always have a new crowd to listen in and enjoy our intimate setting of tea light candles and barely enough lights on because I still get shy on stage. The Writer's Block is like a safe haven for writers.

ST: What is the most interesting story you have heard someone share on stage?

AS: Of all the characters I mentioned, the cross-dresser stands out the most. Not because of the obvious, but because he clearly knows how to tease the crowd with a good story. Week after week, he's tortured and teased us with the juiciest parts of the story just when his time was up. He's shocking, unexpected, and sincerely human.

ST: Has there even been a bad reading?

AS: We have never had a bad reading. Writers get nervous sharing their work, but I never felt it was "bad.” I've always felt it made them honest.

ST: What does the future hold for The Writer's Block?

AS: I'm not sure what the future holds for The Writer's Block, but I can tell you I hope this show sticks around and remains a rock for writers who need an escape so they may share their words with a crowd who wants to hear it, and not just because the writers need to release it.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

AS: I am the kind of person who thinks "spicing things up" means reading a book from the last chapter first and going from there. I'd rather know how it ends and see how it came to be. The end isn't always the end. The beginning is.

To find out more about Annalise Sierra and The Writer's Block, check out the official website.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive