Saturday, November 12, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Nicole McCarthy

Nicole McCarthy is an experimental writer and artist based outside of Seattle. Her work has appeared in PANK, Hobart, The Offing, Redivider, Glass: a Journal of Poetry, Best American Experimental Writing, and others. Her work has also been performed and encountered as projection installation pieces throughout the Puget Sound. Her first nonfiction collection, A SUMMONING, was published summer of 2022 from Heavy Feather Review. Find her at

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

A Summoning is my first book and it showed me that I could write a book. It taught me that there isn’t one way to write a book as long as you just get started. Most of the time the body of work will guide you with how it wants to come together. In the process of writing this book I’ve worked with many writers, each one making me a better writer in the process. Renee Gladman, a well-known experimental writer and artist, was my thesis advisor in grad school and really pushed me to be better with every piece I created. I don’t know what this book would look like without her. I also worked closely with Amaranth Borsuk and Rebecca Brown as I put the collection together, and I feel incredibly lucky that they continue to support me and champion my work.

I can see how my writing has changed even from this first book already. I’m working on a nonfiction collection as well as, to everyone’s surprise, a horror novel. Something about the pandemic kicked off a thrill in me to consume anything horror, and it’s helped. I’ve also become obsessed with the micro essay, evaluating every sentence and every word to see if it’s working hard enough. When I approach writing now, I think about making concise, impactful little paragraphs that linger with people when they read it. So much can be felt and communicated in under 1,000 words.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I wrote poetry in response to a writing prompt in sixth grade, so I suppose it started then. My teacher put it up on the bulletin board in the hallway for all to see, and it lit the ember in me to always be a writer in some form or another. I was also a big reader as a kid, I even won book reading competitions at school and at my local library. I could see, early on, how you can create beauty and art through writing, so I took classes in all genres so I could be versatile and experiment in any genre that possessed me.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

It really depends. When I have a micro essay in mind, I’ll give myself ten minutes with the idea to write down what I’m thinking, then I leave it alone for a few weeks and come back to it, slimming it down, refocusing on the point of the piece, and polishing. I’ve finished whole micro essays in under 30 minutes that feel done, while others I’m still tinkering with because I haven’t reached the center of them yet.

With a nonfiction book project, it takes me ages. I like including research elements into my nonfiction, so I frequently spend months just reading books and highlighting passages I know I’ll reference somewhere in one of my pieces. Lots of diligent notetaking! I’ll write drafts and start tying things together, but with a nonfiction book project I never know when it’s done, what it needs next, what pieces to work on, etc. It’s chaos.

With my horror novel, I’ve given myself the gift of play. I have no expectations for it, so I’ve been experimenting with storytelling elements and themes without putting too much pressure on myself. I set an overall project outline that helps guide me along, but really I just let the narrative wander where it wants, and I merely follow and shape. It’s been a rewarding, refreshing experience.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

It really depends on the project. My pieces usually begin with a sentence I’ve jotted down or a prompt/moment I’ve been dwelling on for a bit. I spend time developing the piece, giving it space to tell me what form it needs to take. Sometimes it comes out looking like a poem, most times it’s a micro essay. I’ll have a feeling in my gut whether or not it’s done. One time I sat on a micro essay for over a year because every time I revisited it, it didn’t have the impact I was hoping for and something about it felt hungry. Because it was about the illusion of love and betrayal, I ended up splicing the text with late 1800s drawings of magicians doing magic tricks. Then I felt in my gut it was done.

I typically create several pieces that come together as a collection, that way I can see how the pieces are in conversation with each other, but I’m currently working on a novel that I’m taking the more traditional route with and working on it from beginning to the end.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Public readings are a big part of the process for me. In the way I think about how my text and visuals will lay out on a page, how I think about my use of white space, etc., I approach event venues and readings the same way. Being in-person with an audience brings the potential for additional layers to the work. One event I did focused on the 12-page overlapping memory piece that appears in my book, and I planted people in the audience to read; we took turns reading our parts until our voices overlapped and it was the coolest result. Another performance I did was for my second nonfiction collection. I threw myself a divorce (like someone would throw a wedding) in a Tudor-style mansion in Seattle. I had toast givers and my original wedding dress on a mannequin with photo props to encourage people to take pictures with it. I came into the performance with a 45-foot veil with wildflowers woven in before jumping right into the reading, and it was the most fun I had because I could feel this book take on another level and a new meaning for me. That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t done a public reading. It’s my favorite part of the process.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I’m always trying to say something, and I always try to take risks in writing. Whether that’s discussing memory and how it shapes our existence, the failings of society, or how do we find control in horror situations, I aspire to explore topics without being on the nose about it.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

We are the witnesses, aren’t we? Documenting history, creating these capsules of art and pain and truth to live outside of time. It’s much larger than that though; we also provide others connections to remind ourselves we aren’t alone in our experiences. At the heart of it, I see the role of writer as witness first.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I haven’t really worked with an outside editor. I have a core group of people I went to college with who have reviewed my work, which was a fun process. The process of swapping work with writers you’re close with and whom you have grown to know their work really well is so cool because you can see, over years, how they’ve grown into their writing. There is also an inherent trust that builds as they encounter your work and provide feedback.  When I went through the editing process for A Summoning, my press asked me to create new visuals for the first half of the book, and it was the greatest suggestion that I’m still thankful for. It added some new layers to the narrative that weren’t there before.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Don’t feel bad about not writing all of the time. When you’re not writing, you’re out cultivating experiences. My poetry mentor taught me that and it helps immensely in times when I’m not feeling like a “real writer”. People on social media are constantly posting about their accomplishments or book deals, which can weigh on you, but sometimes your body and your mind need to check out so you can bake a cake or watch ducks in your local pond or feed your neighborhood squirrels. These moments have turned into micro essays for me eventually, but I allow myself that time to just be present in my own reality and take a breath from everything.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (text to visual pieces)? What do you see as the appeal?

It’s been a necessary part of my writing process for years. Sometimes when I’m trying to communicate something, text simply isn’t enough. Adding a visual to pair alongside text is instrumental in relying the idea or feeling I’m hoping to convey. It shows the reader an additional layer to the work and a small snapshot into how the piece is working in my head.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I wish I had found a routine that works, but it’s all over the board. Sometimes I try to get up early to write, sometimes I stay up passed my bedtime to get revisions done, and sometimes I do nothing at all. I try to write a few times throughout the week, percolate on some writing ideas I’ve been working on, then I dive into several hours of writing on the weekend. It’s best if I give myself deadlines because then I’ll actually get the work done.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

When I get stalled I hop to another project. I revisit something that I’ve let sit and simmer, seeing if fresh eyes will help kickstart it again. I also have a stack of notecards on my desk with different prompts to get me going. Sometimes all I need is to give myself 10 minutes to work my creative muscles to free myself from writers block.

I also have writing specific dates with my husband, who is also a writer. We have café dates where we get coffee, put headphones in and write for a couple of hours, keeping up some dedicated writing time every week. We also do book walk and talks in the spring and summer – we’ll find a trail and walk 2-3 miles while we talk through our writing projects and go over what we’re stuck on. Some of my best writing breakthroughs have happened on these walks. He’s my best editor and thought partner, so usually I just talk to him about what I’m stuck on and we visualize different paths the piece could go.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Warm banana bread. My mom’s laundry detergent (probably from Costco). Folgers coffee brewing. Lavender lemonade candles. The cologne my fella wears.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I leave myself open to be inspired by everything. A writer teacher of mine mentioned in a class that every moment is worthy of being an essay, even the small moments. It’s stuck with me, so anytime I’m out in the world making more memories and encountering art, nature etc., I know I’m opening myself to more writing. When I was on top of a crater in Maui, I was inspired by nature, yes, but also who I was with and why I was there, thinking about my place in the universe. I have curated playlists for all my writing projects and I listen to them repeatedly to help me settle into the tone of what I’m writing. I see this inspiration and influence like a reverberation or a ripple in a pond, one can’t exist without the other.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Everything. I would love to keep exploring the horror genre and getting involved with that literary community. I would love to keep up with my nonfiction and continue to push the boundaries of what in-person performances can do and what can be done on the page/ on the web. I would also love to bring this element of performance into my horror fiction work in the future.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Strangely enough, I think I would have become a therapist. It’s fulfilling to me to help people and hear their stories, knowing they are trusting me to engage with them with empathy and compassion. Very different, but still a lot of note taking.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I’ve always been a poor communicator, especially with the people I’m closest to. Writing is my way of taking a breath, thinking through a topic or moment deeply, then writing something in a way that reveals a piece of me.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Poetry: Green River Valley by Robert Lashley (from Blue Cactus Press)

Fiction: The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey

Nonfiction: The Guild of the Infant Savior by Megan Culhane Gabraith (Ohio State Press)

To be honest I haven’t been watching anything new, but I have been revisiting class 90s TV and film like The Mummy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scream, 10 Things I Hate About You, etc. It’s making my bitter heart happy.

19 - What are you currently working on?

See above 😊

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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