Wednesday, May 05, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jenny Bhatt

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book reviewer. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her debut story collection, Each of Us Killers: Stories, came out with 7.13 Books in September 2020. Her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: Dhumketu’s Best Short Stories, came out in October 2020 with HarperCollins India. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in various venues in the US, UK, and India, including The Atlantic, NPR, BBC Culture, The Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, The Millions, Electric Literature, and more. Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. Find her at https://jennybhattwriter.com.

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

This first book was a long time coming. I turned 48 the month it was published in this year of a global pandemic year and the US presidential elections. I’d expected it to change my life, just not in the ways that it has done so eventually. I’ve learned a lot of publishing industry lessons. I’ve learned that writing and publishing are definitely not the same thing. I’ve learned that I could happily live on without having another book published ever again. And I’ve learned that there are many other non-monetary benefits to being a marginalized writer.

My writing is still about exploring issues and questions that confuse me and keep me up at night. I’ve never looked for easy answers. What’s changed now, though, is that I have more faith in myself that I will, eventually, find the right words and ways to communicate, at least to myself, what I must.

Writing will always be a part of my life. I’m just not too enamored with the whole book publication game and the performing monkeys we have to become to sell books.

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

I came to fiction as a child listening to stories told by family elders — folktales, fairytales, family histories. Fiction has always been a way to work out my own thoughts about something that makes a home in my head. I write a lot of nonfiction too but fiction is where I find the more profound and meaningful answers I need.

What pretty much set the course for me was winning a children’s short story competition at age 10 at the national level in India. My English teacher had encouraged me to enter. I never thought about winning but I’d loved and wanted to explore one of the four prompts as the story title: ‘Robots Who Wrote Poetry’. My version was a cross between H G Wells and The Wizard of Oz, I recall. And winning the award in that category sealed the deal for me in terms of personal career aspirations. It validated that I had something valuable to contribute to the world.

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?

I can circle around a writing project for months — making outlines, character and scene sketches, early drafts as grocery list items, personal journal notes. When I eventually settle into a project, it flows well enough. First drafts often bear very little resemblance to the final work. If my final draft is too close to the early drafts, I know I’m not done because that means my own thinking hasn’t evolved enough through the writing process. It’s really why I write, in the end: to work things out in my head; to end up at a different place from where I started.

4 - Where does a work of prose 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 always begins with a short piece: a scene, a character sketch, an image description. Then, I find the threads or nerves that connect the bits and pieces into a larger and more cohesive pattern. Right now, even though I say I have a novel in progress, it’s really a collection of linked stories that need more connective tissue to bring them together.

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

I see public readings as a necessity to help sell books. I’m not a performer and I’m not fond of crowds. So I don’t see readings as helping my creative process at all. They leave me quite exhausted, to be honest. But I also appreciate where certain kinds of readers need to have that form of connection with a writer to be moved by the latter’s words. We all come to our reading with different kinds of hunger. Some of us want to see ourselves represented, some of us want to learn about other cultures, some of us want to learn about the cultures we inhabit (especially when that’s not the same as the culture we were raised in.) I respect all the many reasons we come to books as readers. And I understand that some readers need to feel like they know the writer to connect with their work.

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 don’t know about theoretical concerns. Questions, I have plenty. And they can range from the prosaic of “how can person X in situation Y manage?” to “what if the world was not like this but like that?” Often, the question itself will change through the writing process and that’s when I know I’m making some real headway because I’m framing the issues differently by exploring deeper or differently.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I see writers as the people who raise difficult questions, who speak truth to power, and who make us see things in this world that we’re either missing or turning away from. And I think that now, more than ever, we need writers to keep doing all of this. 24/7 social media turns everyone into a circus performer. YOLO and FOMO makes many get drawn to the next viral sensation. And we miss so much of our own lives, as a result. The best writers make us see our world and our lives in new, different, more profound ways. I don’t look to writers for answers. Those I must find within myself. But I do look to writers to frame the issues and questions properly; to help me focus my distracted gaze on what should matter.

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

Both difficult and essential. That second, detached perspective can help me spot issues in my writing that I will never see on my own. The best editors I’ve worked with had a lot more faith and confidence in my writing than I’ve ever had. And that helped me loosen up and open up more in the writing. It makes a world of difference to find the right kind of editor. The opposite can happen too: an editor can be so censorious or so limiting in their own perspective that they don’t know how to help a writer get to that next level. I’ve worked with this kind too and am beginning to see the signs earlier now so I can step away quickly.

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

The best piece of writing advice? It’s actually a fun little trick a writing instructor once used in a workshop: summarize your story/essay into a "In a world . . ." movie trailer sentence. If it sounds substantive enough, you're on the right track. If it doesn't, you've got more work to do. I find this, after all these years, to still be a good litmus test. I've abandoned several stories/essays because they didn't pass this basic test. If a piece isn't substantial enough, no amount of pretty words will make it so. It means I have to ask tougher questions of myself rather than putting more lipstick on a pig.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

In my case, it’s short stories to translation to critical prose. I do need to be in different frames of mind for each kind of work. But, in the end, each one informs or develops my writing muscles overall. Writing fiction helps me with translating fiction because I understand the original writer’s craft and style and voice better. Translating has made me a closer reader of my own work and that of other writers I’m reviewing. And reviewing makes me see my own writing and the works I’m translating with a dispassionate eye, especially when I’m in the editing phase. So it’s all connected and I hope I can continue to do all three forms of writing. I wrote a bit about this symbiosis here: https://www.pw.org/content/craft_capsule_we_are_all_translators.

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?

This year hasn’t been great for routines because of geographic moves, book promotion stuff, the pandemic, etc. Generally, though I prefer to write early AM or late PM, when the world isn’t coming at me from all directions. A typical day, ideally, begins with a big mug of brewed masala chai with some poetry reading. Then, I check for any urgent messages before settling down for a few hours of writing. That’s what I did through the years of both my books. Now, working on a novel, I’m trying to get back to that rhythm and discipline.

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

Music, poetry, a favorite book—all of these are inspiration sources. I wrote about how music works for me here.

The one place that never fails is my personal journal. I’ve always found that, if I’m stuck, I can work out what’s bothering me by writing it out in my journal. It might take a while to untangle the many threads and figure out which one to grab and follow further. But I usually get there. I wrote about this at Poets and Writers earlier this [last] year.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Hot masala chai brewing on the stove.

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?

Music, for sure, as I mentioned above in #12. Visual art, to some extent, yes. Mostly, though, my inner circuitry is rewired by reading other writers’ works.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I read a fair bit of financial stuff because I studied to be a certified financial planner at one time and I find the world of finance pretty interesting. I love to read about cognitive science, especially the many ways that it intersects so many other disciplines. And I read a fair bit about the publishing industry because, well, I want to understand better the forces and biases that govern it.

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

Write a novel. Translate a novel. Write a book about literary criticism but in a non-academic or non-scholarly way. At this present moment, these projects are at the top of my mind.

17 - 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?

I’ve had many jobs already, from waitressing to tech executive to yoga instructor. If I hadn’t switched to writing, I might have become a personal financial advisor because I did train for that after my corporate career.

But if I could pick another occupation rather than writer, I would probably be a publisher or a commissioning editor. Because I’d want to be involved with books in some way or other.

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

It started with that 10-year-old short story competition that I mentioned in #2. But the reason I’ve stayed with it, even given up a lucrative corporate career for it, is probably because it keeps me sane. It’s my way of being in the world, of coping with the world, and of contributing to the world. That is all.

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

The last great book I read was Toni Morrison’s Jazz. It was a reread for a writing workshop I taught this year. I wrote a bit about the experience this time around at The Millions.

The last great film? This is tougher as I don’t watch a lot of movies. Probably a classic Bollywood movie, though: Golmaal. It’s a cult classic by the director, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and features a stellar ensemble cast at the top of their comedic game. And they don’t make ‘em like Hrishi-da anymore. I’ve seen most of his movies many, many times.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A novel. A translation. A book review. The next Desi Books podcast episode. It’s not the best process but it’s how anything gets done.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

new from above/ground press : dec 2020-apr 2021 : twenty-seven new titles,

; that i want, by Ava Hofmann $5 ; Knife with Oral Greed, by JoAnna Novak $5 ; I am a language you are the sound device, by Sandra Moussempès translated by Eléna Rivera $5 ; Clinging & Grasping, by Franklin Bruno $5 ; a grain of sand, Photograph by Julya Hajnoczky Poem by Helen Hajnoczky $5 ; Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal] #29 : with new poems by Bill Carty, Michael Turner, Nina Vega-Westhoff, Sarah Alcaide-Escue, Colby Clair Stolson, Robert Hogg, Elizabeth Robinson, Tom Prime and Simina Banu $8 ; a journal of the plague year, by Edward Smallfield $5 ; still life with elegy, by Valerie Coulton $5 ; The Hotdog Variations, by James Hawes $4 ; The Great Beauty, by Anik See (prose/naut) $5 ; Chronotope, by David Dowker $5 ; zero dawn, by Shelly Harder $5 ; buttons & bones, by Alexander Joseph $5 ; a field guide to fanciful bugs, by Amanda Earl $5 ; OCCUPATIONAL ELEGIES, Joseph Mosconi $5 ; Moonbathing in Al Faiyūm, by Brenda Iijima $5 ; Transmissions from the Crawdad Constellation, by Michael Sikkema $5 ; OFF THE RESTING SEA, by Al Kratz (prose/naut) $5 ; THE OCEANDWELLER, by Saeed Tavanaee Marvi, translated by Khashayar Mohammadi $4 ; Bridge and burn, by Jason Christie $4 ; micro moonlights, by katie o'brien $5 ; Less Dream, by N.W. Lea $5 ; Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal] #28 : with new poems by MLA Chernoff, Geoffrey Olsen, Douglas Barbour, Hamish Ballantyne, JoAnna Novak, Allyson Paty and Lisa Fishman $8 ; Geometric Mantra, by Andrew Brenza $5 ; The Universe in an Earth-Shaped Urn, by Amish Trivedi $5 ; The Odes (Incomplete), by Zane Koss $5 ; I exit the hallway        and turn right, by Genevieve Kaplan $5 ;

Until the end of May 2021: you can have any six above/ground press 2021-so-far titles for $20 (plus shipping; rates below). I've made a ton of things so far this year!


keep an eye on the above/ground press blog for author interviews, new writing, reviews, upcoming readings and tons of other material;

published in Ottawa by above/ground press
December 2020 - April 2021
a/g subscribers receive a complimentary copy of each


To order, send cheques (add $1 for postage; in US, add $2; outside North America, add $5) to: rob mclennan, 2423 Alta Vista Drive, Ottawa ON K1H 7M9. E-transfer or PayPal at at rob_mclennan (at) hotmail.com or the PayPal button (above). Scroll down here to see various backlist titles, or click on any of the extensive list of names on the sidebar (many, many things are still in print).

Review copies of any title (while supplies last) also available, upon request.

Forthcoming chapbooks by Andy Weaver, Stan Rogal, Matthew Owen Gwathmey, Summer Brenner, Benjamin Niespodziany, Ken Sparling, Phil Hall and Madhur Anand, Jen Tynes, Franklin Bruno, Gregory Betts, Robert Hogg, Amaranth Borsuk, Katie Naughton, Valerie Witte, Kōan Anne Brink, Alyssa Bridgman, Michael Sikkema, M.A.C. Farrant, Monica Mody, Conor Mc Donnell, James Lindsay, Jamie Townsend, Barry McKinnon, David Miller, Amish Trivedi and plenty of others! And there’s totally still time to subscribe for 2021, by the way (backdating to January 1st, obviously). Oh, and you are checking out periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics regularly, yes? lots going on there.

Stay home! Stay safe! Get vaccinated! Wash your damned hands. Be nice to each other.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Lisa Summe, Say It Hurts

 

I’m Sorry I Cannot Attend Your Party

It’s not your taste for cheap beer
or the fact that your couch smells like boys.
It’s not the way your little cat gets stoned by accident

or that at your same party last summer

someone barfed on my new green shoes.
It’s not because I know that this time
there will be no piñata because right now

you’re really into being an adult.

I’m the drying grass in the hottest summer yet
& you’re the sprinkler that only works on the weekends.
I’m the kid with the broken telescope,

just a little dot on this planet,

& you’re that big beautiful moon.
I can only look at you from here.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania poet Lisa Summe’s full-length poetry debut is Say It Hurts (Portland OR: YesYes Books, 2021), a book on growing up, and attempting to love; on growing up in the space of conservative values against the discovery of what it means to be gay, and what it means to be bisexual, including well before either of those ideas or terms are even introduced by the narrator, let alone understood. It is a book of secrets and discovery, even prior to coming out, composed through a sequence of short, first person lyrics. “I had heard the name                             Matthew Shepard // When you are                        queer // there is always violence,” she writes, towards the end of the opening poem, “Light as a Feather                 Stiff as a Board,” a poem that ends with: “When a lesbian                   writes a poem // it’s a lesbian poem [.]”

This is a book of emerging, discovering and becoming; the realization; of flirtations, girlfriends and not-girlfriends, seeking out the answers to and repercussions of what the heart wants. As she writes to end the prose-sequence “Elegy”: “You & Fred on the couch in his living / room. You & me on the couch in our living room. You could have any girl / you wanted.” This is a book of recollections and selfies, a book of elegies and small celebrations; a book of joy and grief and uncertainty, as she attempts to move forward. “my grief flying out,” she writes, to close the poem “Your Pinterest Board Called Wedding,” “the window of you: what you like / about the finch: it always returns home [.]” These are incredibly sharp and revealing poems, and there is wisdom in these recollections of youthful exploits; the first loves, infatuations, explorations and big feelings. It is entirely possible, as well, that the poems Summe discussed in an interview back in 2013, conducted by Mike Dockins for the poet’s billow, might have been the openings of what eventually became the collection Say It Hurts:

My most recent idea, and I’m just at the beginning stages of this—having written eight or so poems for it—is a chapbook that is a fictionalized re-telling of my experience at an all-girls Catholic high school in the mid-2000s: falling in love with a girl, having her quit our relationship because she said she wasn’t gay (while I was declaring that I wasn’t gay either), trying to date guys to get over it / be “normal,” and having to deal with all of this on my own, as I was not yet out and didn’t feel safe talking to anyone about my feelings because I was taught that my feelings were wrong. These are poems I’ve been wanting to write for a long time, but just couldn’t. Ten years later, I feel ready to go back and revisit both those feelings and that girl with a critical eye and with the ability to shape the whole thing into what I hope will be an interesting narrative about coming out and dealing with the surprises of unexpected love.

As she writes, “the surprises of unexpected love.” I can’t imagine a better tag-line for Say It Hurts than this.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with M.C. Armstrong

M.C. Armstrong is the author of The Mysteries of Haditha, published in 2020 by Potomac Books. He was recently embedded with JSOF in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. He published extensively on the Iraq war through The Winchester Star. Armstrong is the winner of a Pushcart Prize and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Esquire, The Missouri Review, The Gettysburg Review, Monkeybicycle, Wrath-bearing Tree, Epiphany, War, Literature, and the Arts, The Literary Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is the guitarist and lead singer for Viva la Muerte. You can follow him on Twitter @mcarmystrong.

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

The Mysteries of Haditha is both my first book and my ninth. I wrote eight novels prior to publishing Haditha, many of them focused on The Global War on Terror. After spending twelve years working on Haditha, which is a memoir, I would say it changed my life through giving me hope about the literary marketplace and a bridge back to Iraq. I spent three weeks embedded with Joint Special Operations Forces in Al Anbar Province during the second Iraq War in 2008. Meeting so many Iraqis while there changed my life and the way I saw American foreign policy and my own hometown (which happens to be the city where the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, received his education). Writing and publishing The Mysteries of Haditha made me think deeply about those Iraqis I met and also the ones who might read my book one day. Through Haditha, I met Noor Ghazi here in Greensboro, the Iraqi-American peace activist with whom I now collaborate frequently. Through this book and the relationships that have developed out of it, I feel I have been given a window into the good side of cosmopolitanism—that conviction—or maybe just sense—that we are all citizens of the world.

That conviction slash sense slash hunch informs the novel I just completed, American Delphi. Delphi takes its name from that place in ancient Greece where one used to travel to hear the truth. The oracle at Delphi was a woman named Pythia and, generally, her prophecies were delivered in a trance-like state, perhaps as a function of the psychedelic response to the vapors rising up from the chasm beneath her perch. In my novel, Delphi refers to an app that tells the future. Long story short, Zora Box, my fifteen-year old heroine, discovers that her father, shortly before he died, developed this app while serving in Iraq, and that it may well be the reason he was killed. Upon finding the app and harnessing its powers, Zora is confronted with a difficult question: What are you willing to risk to find the truth? Gandhi argued that truth is God and God is truth, but what happens when we make that principle our mission in life? I suppose The Mysteries of Haditha introduced me to such questions by revealing to me the strange and revealing connections that tether together America and those ancient lands of Babylon. American Delphi is my further exploration of those connections and questions, but just in a new genre.  

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

In spite of The Mysteries of Haditha being my first book, my first significant publication was “The Seventy-fourth Virgin,” a piece of fiction about a Muslim Trump from the future that was published in The Gettysburg Review back in 2011. By that time, I’d been writing fiction for twenty-five years. It probably all started with Laura Robb, one of those great frenzied grade school teachers who used to climb up on the desks and shout stories from on high—or maybe it started with my father who, instead of reading to my brother and me as children, would often entrance us with improvisational tales populated with characters who seemed a lot like us and if we ever got snoozy in the midst of his myths, he would tickle us (put us in what he called “the mix-master”), which, after awhile, I suppose got us a bit addicted to the pleasures of confabulation.  

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?

The first drafts come quickly, often in a trance that borders on a rush. A novel I’m working on right now, Support the Troops, came to me in about six months, back in 2003. But I’m still working on it right here in 2020. I once had an agent who said that great novels age like wine. You capture the zeitgeist in that rush and then let time feather in the perspective that makes the novel that unique bouquet, that mysterious hybrid species of pleasure and wisdom, philosophy and experience, sense and sensibility.

With Support the Troops, like American Delphi and The Mysteries of Haditha, I took folders full of notes. Each of those books required dozens of books worth of reading. “Read before you write,” the journalist, Seymour Hersh, once said, but I would add to that and say read while you write and read after you write, too. Never stop reading and never stop questioning yourself and never stop jotting down those bizarre sensory impressions from daily life with their metaphorical seeds like “cloppy licks” (as I listen to Yorick addressing her undercarriage behind me in my office). Henry James said that “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.” That’s been my experience. You write ten books and about ten drafts for each book and how many published works do you have? One. What would I do without Yorick constantly encouraging me to nurse these delusions of grandeur?

4 - Where does a work of prose 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?

My short works, these days, like “The Spotlight Trial” and “Do You Know Ted Cruz?”, tend to be ways of staying limber in between bigger projects. I have a million of what some might call “obsessions” and that’s the origin of most of my prose, long and short. I’d like to say there’s a hard and fast rule here and that the deeper obsessions win the larger projects and the shallower hungers become short stories, but that’s not always the case. “The Spotlight Trial” is the only piece of fiction or non-fiction that I’ve published about the murder of John F. Kennedy, but I’ve been investigating that story since my mother took me to see Oliver Stone’s JFK back when I was fourteen. I suppose a work of prose generally begins for me when I hear the character and start mumbling in his or her voice. Once that speech starts to bramble around my brain, I’m helpless and it’s wonderful. 

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

I’m a performer. Unlike Sartre, I do not believe that hell is other people. I love people. For fifteen years, I’ve been in a rock n’ roll band called Viva la Muerte. If I didn’t like to perform in public—if it made me sick like it did Barbara Streisand—I wouldn’t keep doing it. I adore it. And I like to give readings, especially when people show up ready for a good conversation. Other than a wild jam with an adventurous musician (that sublingual back and forth), I find nothing more nourishing than good exploratory talk with total strangers and curious friends. Readings are one of those rare intimate spaces where such connections can take place. You turn off your phone. You meditate on the writer’s words for a half hour, maybe longer. You listen. You tune your ear to his, her, or their music. And if your muse awakens, you find yourself inspired to ask a question and, thereby, tickle the fragile of the ego of the lonely writer. Whether as fan or author, I think readings are wonderful antidotes to the social media environment where everyone’s talking and no one is listening. 

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?

In many ways, my questions are the questions of my characters, particularly Zora: What happens if I stop salivating on cue to the public relations people at home, at work, and all around me and decide to dedicate myself to truth? What if mission number one is keeping faith with the truth? How bizarre, right, for a fiction writer to dedicate himself to truth. But, to paraphrase Picasso, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” What’s the difference between truth with a capital “T” and the lower-case variety we encounter every day with tickers of stats and facts? The big T, in my experience, refers to intuition, that sense of the truth and what is hidden. The big T is not found in polling data or “naming names,” and it is not found in the geographical cure. The big T, I find, has something to do with unnaming and defamiliarization, that Poe idea that everything beautiful possesses some property of the strange. The best books I’ve read show me science, insanity, the South, the war, my backyard, my bedroom—or simply a cup of coffee—in a fresh and strange light. The question I’m always trying to answer in my work is what is the question my people are dodging? Write what’s missing—that’s my bumper sticker. When you go to the bookstore and you see the world divided up by genre and class and race and religion and everyone shopping within their own market tribe, ask yourself: What story might bring the tribes together for a roisterous powow? What would happen if I started speaking to a young adult like an adult? What would happen if I allowed my sci-fi characters to have a fully developed or totally dysfunctional sex life like we see in Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles? That basic modernist principle of defamiliarization—make it new—when applied to the genre as well as the sentence, can be so much fun, and can help to tear down some of these walls we see the political economy and our contemporary “common sense” erecting between us.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

My vision for myself as a writer is probably quite different than that of my three best writer-friends, Andria Williams, Paul Crenshaw and James Tate Hill. But I do see a tradition that yokes most of the writers I know and admire together: The writer speaks for those who cannot. The writer provides a vision of the invisible. The writer speaks up for the voiceless, the censored, and the forgotten. If the writer does have a role in the larger culture, I think it is as an amanuensis for that dirty muted figure in the basement of Ursula LeGuin’s story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” If the writer’s role in the culture has been diminished, and I think it has been, it probably has something to do with many of us picking at the low-hanging fruit and speaking up for ourselves rather than others. Do we really need more backyard and round the house glimpses from the quiet desperations of the blanched burbs? Do we really need another granular vision of alienation from the new Brooklyn? So much of the dominant culture seems concerned with New York, LA, Washington, DC, and the elites who can afford to live in those cities. What if our literature, film, television, and politics ceased yielding so much mental real estate to those places? One of my favorite TV shows, Ozark, is successful, I think, because it leaves the elite coasts and travels to a forgotten region. One of my favorite novels from a few years ago, Stephen Florida, achieves the same effect by traveling to North Dakota and exploring the forgotten sport of wrestling in hilarious and mythical fashion. What Gabe Habash accomplishes in that book through his wonderfully repellant and utterly unreliable narrator is introduce you to a person and a place you didn’t even know you were ignoring, an unknown unknown. That’s what so much good writing does, over and over. Write what’s missing.

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

In The Mysteries of Haditha, I begin every chapter with an example of graffiti the Iraq war and labeled those epigraphs “graffiti from the war.” Each of those quotes, like “The enemy is in the White House, not over here” or “Why write? Draw naked chicks”—came from the latrines of Iraq and Kuwait. But one of my editors suggested that I say “graffito from the war,” rather than “graffiti.” I had never heard of the word “graffito.” I did not know graffiti had a singular. Is one piece of zucchini now zucchino? At first I thought the editor’s suggestion preposterous. Then I thought it brilliant for its defamiliarization. I found myself pondering this question of “graffiti” or “graffito” late at night and on long walks. I asked Andria Williams about it and she brought up the issue of zucchini. I loved the debate, the defamiliarization of language in my own head and imagining how that veiling might unveil things for my readers. Would I seem pretentious for using “graffito”? Would pretentious people embrace “graffito”? What would “graffito” do for the reader as the first impression of my first book? I went with “graffiti,” but I adored agonizing over the process—the story—with that editor.

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

Terrance Hayes, in his gorgeous poem, “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy,” writes, “Not what you see, but what you perceive: that’s poetry. Not the noise, but its rhythm; an arrangement of derangements.” That piece of wisdom from Mister Lighthead slash Hayes is right up there with what my mentor at UVA, George Garrett said to me. Hayes is speaking on the level of the line. Garrett, when I asked him the question of “How do you make it as a writer?” responded with one simple word: “Last.” Garrett’s talking about the big picture. He told me that the young writer is always surrounded by more talented people, bright young men and women left and right. But the ones who make it are the ones who last, which raises the question of what sustains those who do not yield to the temptation of law school, marketing, and suicide? That question takes us back to Lighthead’s answer. If you practice perception—vision, metaphor, and empathy—every morning when you write, writing will become a healthy intoxicant, a nourishing addiction, a form of yoga and prayer. And you will last.

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

There are so many genres and each one brings its own challenges. For example, I don’t think it’s easy to write Young Adult after you’ve been doing longform journalism or “serious literary fiction.” When I started on American Delphi, I thought to myself that this will be a piece of cake and maybe even a nice break after Shenandoah, an historical novel about the War of 1812 I recently completed. After all, how hard can it be to perform the mind of a fifteen-year old girl? Well, quite hard, it turns out. I sent the first few chapters of the first draft to my seventeen-year old niece, Hannah, who read me the riot act for the number of “whatevers” I’d thoughtlessly plunked into the voice of Zora Box. Hannah and my friend, Rachel, gave me a good primer on what young American women say and don’t say when it comes to their bodies and their country. I do not think every writer simply contains multitudes from the outset. The multitudes are out there and in order to feel them and emote them you have to talk with them through reading or conversation or research and observation. At least I do. Which is to say, it’s easy to jump from genre to genre, but it’s hard to do it well.

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 write in the morning and I read at night. The shorter the bridge between dream and page, the better. I like to wake up, tune my mind with whatever book or song my intuition tells me is my tuner, and then turn to my guitar or my computer. If I can keep my cellphone off throughout the morning—if I can sustain a monastic silence through coffee, windowlight, and unmediated concentration—I might just be able to conjure a few good pages. This is the routine, for the most part, but when it becomes too routine and starts to feel mechanical, I’ll go to the woods or into journalism and longhand scrawl. I’ll do a sweat lodge or a Dead show. I’ll write scholarship. I’ll write nothing but night poetry until I feel like the muse is wild and satisfied with my commitment to her mysteries and commands. And then I’ll return to the computer in the morning and that cardinal that always stares at me when I’m on the path.

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

As I mentioned above, I’ve always found inspiration in the wilderness and live Dead. But, day to day, when the Rockies aren’t right outside my backdoor (as they were one summer) and the Dead aren’t on tour, it’s the exorcisms of exercise, yoga, and playing live music with my friends that returns me most reliably to the source. I’m a gym rat. I like getting lost in the reps and the sweat and doing laps in the pool. I also have a couple wonderful yoga instructors who resist the American impulse to make yoga just another form of cardio. They organize their practice around poetry and vision and the people who attend their classes tend to have unorthodox spiritualities. Those meditations and the silences and conversations that flow out of them decalcify my mind weekly, although not as frequently during this pandemic. But more than anything, it’s music—listening and playing. I don’t know where I’d be without Viva la Muerte. So many writers treat music like an outsider or a child or an inferior form of storytelling, but I view great songwriting as literature and always try to remember that when poets used to invoke the muse, they would ask her to sing. Music is the source.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I grew up in Winchester, Virginia, a city that used to be the apple capital of the country—orchards everywhere. My friends and I camped in those orchards and drove old beaters down the lanes between those scraggly trees on summer nights when we were teenagers, often throwing each other from the backs of trucks or the roofs of old station-wagons. Sometimes, I would see the Haitian migrant workers picking apples for the Byrd family orchards (same folks who ran the newspaper) and I wouldn’t think twice about race or class. White people owned the orchards and black people were shipped in from poor foreign countries to pick the fruit. That’s just the way it is, right? Of course, those apple trees are all gone now. In Winchester, our grocery stores, like most American grocery stores, carry Chinese apples. Our McMansion neighborhoods are now like tombs for the orchards—streets and complexes named after the apples. But I can still smell that sweet cidery air.

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 have a friend named Chris Porter who is an incredible collagist. Whenever I dive into his work on Instagram, I’m reminded of what William S. Burroughs taught me back when I was first getting turned on to literature in high school: Good art cuts up the linear mind. Good art cuts up that mechanical mode of thinking that politicizes and tribalizes, dropping everyone into binary boxes. As Wendell Berry says, “Every day, do something that won’t compute.” I love collage for those reasons, and also because it’s fun, especially if you’re building one with someone else. It returns you to the mind of a child—the way it compels you to use your fingers and answer images with images and put fun sticky words on top of mean or boring words.

Jennifer Orth-Veillon has a fascinating blog about World War I. She asked me to contribute to it last year, and what I wrote about was the cut-up method that most people credit Burroughs with discovering. Although it’s true that Burroughs did popularize literary collage in books like the Nova trilogy and Naked Lunch, there was this World War I era writer named John Dos Passos who was practicing cut-up slash collage twenty years before Burroughs in this trilogy called USA. For those interested in biographical criticism, one thing I discovered while doing research, is that the inspiration for Dos Passos’ ad man character, J. Ward Moorehouse, was Ivy Lee, the uncle of Burroughs. Lee was an actual factual historical advertising agent who got lured into developing propaganda for the American government and the character of Moorehouse is one of the first literary studies in what happens when the wall between state and entertainment breaks down. Before Burroughs developed his avant-garde technique, he was a young man in a family who witnessed, first-hand, what propaganda can do to a man’s mind. Yes, everything is personal. Burroughs cared about propaganda because it was part of his lived experience. Advertising, broadly, and propaganda, specifically, tries to cut into our consciousness in the name of profit and nationalism, anxieties relievable by purchase, fear assuaged by cash. It riddles the minds of aunts and uncles and struggling teenagers. Collage like you see with Porter and Burroughs, on the other hand, cuts into that riddling and helps you reclaim your courage and intuition, that sense of play that’s so essential to good writing and being a brave and fun human being.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Recently, as I’ve been finishing my dissertation on post-9/11 soldier-writers, I’ve been thinking a lot about Don DeLillo and the growing community of Iraqi authors who have focused on describing America’s Global War on Terror from a point of view other than that of our soldiers. What DeLillo woke me up to twenty years ago is the same thing I see in Iraqi authors like Ahmed Saadawi (author of Frankenstein in Baghdad) right now in more granular ways: the American idea isn’t the only one out there. DeLillo’s work is decisively and intricately cosmopolitan, even to the point that one sees him questioning some of the problems of the cosmopolitan point of view (like its tendency toward elitism) in novels like Underworld and Cosmopolis. To subscribe to some species of cosmopolitanism, the idea that one has a special responsibility to those beyond the vaporous borders of one’s nation, seems increasingly remedial as we build this globalized world and see America export its systemic racism abroad, but to see one’s self as a citizen of the world means more than just knowing a few facts about China and Russia. Strangely, when you dig into the literature of some of these countries where America has more than just a carbon footprint—like Iraq, Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Congo, Libya, Iran, Pakistan, and Vietnam—you start to learn more about those countries and their customs, sure, but you also begin to learn more about America and some of these complex problems we’re facing, like the war on terror, automation, and climate change. But more to the literary point, in Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, what I think readers will discover is that even the Iraqi idea of evil is now a composite of ideas repurposed from an English novel and an American movie, a beast that is itself a composite of body parts reflecting this collage notion of war and the world.

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

At the end of his life, Ken Kesey obsessed over making a movie about his time on the magic bus, Furthur. He made the argument, in an interview, that if Shakespeare were alive today, he wouldn’t be writing literature or drama. He would be telling the people’s stories and the people’s stories are movies. That’s changing. Now, it seems, longform television—that hybrid of TV, movie, and literature’s more in-depth concerns with character—is the people’s choice. So, I’d like to go there and adapt my most recent novel, American Delphi, as a longform sequence. The Delphi saga is poised to be a trilogy, but there’s also an open-ended quality to it that will lend the story to creative input from others who may wish to grow the tale beyond its literary borders. As we speak, I’m working with Naima Said, a Palestinian writer and director with a great Horror film podcast, on building that script. Incidentally, I’d also like Viva la Muerte to one day play Red Rocks, that great natural amphitheater out in Colorado.

17 - 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?

When I was eight and bored in a third grade English class, I took to memorizing the names of the American presidents I could see on a poster that perimetered the room. Upon accomplishing this feat and having my parents show it off as a kind of parlor trick at parties and family reunions, I got it in my head that, instead of being a professional baseball player or a fireman, maybe I’ll one day be one of those men like James Garfield or John F. Kennedy. The delusion of grandeur implicit in such a dream job is obvious to me now and scares me. I canvassed for Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders. Even now, in 2020, I still sometimes get so excited about what America can do that I still entertain the thought of jumping in. But then I look back at Obama and reflect on how powerless he felt, so unable to accomplish his basic goals like closing Guantanamo Bay. I think about how depressed I used to get as I listened to one of my students at North Carolina A&T, an historically black college, agonize over Obama using drones to assassinate people of color all over Africa and the Middle East because, as Obama confessed in his memoir, the “machinery” of war commanded him to do so.

Sometimes, I think back to a summer when I was twenty and working for a blind lawyer. I was studying the LSATs and was ready to launch a career as a trial attorney and genuinely believed that arc would one day take me to the White House. But cobbling together those documents for that old man and witnessing the zero-sum game of American law—always the winners and the losers—gave me a sinking feeling, a claustrophobia. As the summer went on and I tried to drink that feeling away, I felt like I was being asked to live someone else’s life. There was one day, in particular, when I was speaking with one of our clients who wanted a divorce from her husband. Long story short, she told me about the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her husband. She gave me the details, as they say—the particulars of his sadism. When I reported back to Joe, the attorney, what she’d told me, I could tell that Joe found my interest in her pain touching but irrelevant. “Immaterial to the case,” were his words. Well, those details—the sensory details of a human life—were not immaterial to me. I wanted to organize my life around them.

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

How does one begin to answer that question? Maybe everything depended on my father’s improvised bedtime stories and my mother’s belief that Kennedy was killed by his government and my sister asking me what SHE wanted out of life and this one winter day when I fell through the ice of a lake and my brother reached down and pulled me up. I often go back to those four family contexts. My father showed me the fun in riffing and jamming, making what’s right in front of you part of the story. My mother showed me that the story in the news wasn’t always the real story. My sister would often, half-playfully and half-seriously, ask me when we were children, “What do I want?” She knew that my brother wanted to be a doctor and that I, apparently, wanted to be a lawyer, but as I got closer to law school, her question became my own. There she was, the babe of the family, sitting in her highchair, watching all of us at dinner all those years, talking about all the things we thought we knew and knew we wanted, but she wasn’t sure. She didn’t know. There was a great destabilizing honesty in that, and I think about it all the time. Where do so many stories start? With my sister, Katee, and the confession that’s implied in her question: I DON’T KNOW.

And then there was that day on Lake Holiday. I was four and carried a Captain America matchbox car in my pocket. I carried that car everywhere. My father took my brother and me with him to retrieve a red canoe from the lake and we were told to go sit on the marina while he tied the canoe to the roof of our old gray Oldsmobile with its arcade carpet in the back. We did as we were told and sat above the ice of that lake, playing with our matchbox cars. We positioned them on the ice and raced them and crashed them and made the sounds of motors. But then I let mine go, maybe just to see how far it might travel on that perfect surface. Well, I suppose it went further than I expected. I couldn’t reach it so, without thinking, I stood up and walked out on the ice and I fell through. I remember trying to come up and hitting my head on the underside and feeling a panic unlike anything I’d ever felt before, a claustrophobia and breathlessness that still resonates right now. Miraculously, my brother found me and grabbed my hand. Then that night, as my father was washing my body with warm water in the garage sink and my mother was putting my clothes in the dryer, she found that Captain America car in my pocket and handed it to me. One thing I realized that day was that I’d nearly died and that my brother had saved my life. That brush with death woke me up to something I’m not going to try to name here, but it has a great deal to do with who I am and why I write.

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

Right now, I’m reading Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden, and if the first fifty pages are any indication, this is going to go down as a great book, so fingers crossed for Virgil Wounded Horse, the narrator. I hope he can guide me through like his namesake from antiquity. Before that I’d say Phil Klay’s new novel, Missionaries. Klay’s one of the authors I’m studying for Camp No, my dissertation, and I loved his first collection, Redeployment, so I had high hopes for Missionaries. But there were moments where my faith wavered, and after I finished it, I remember thinking that those slow uncertain intervals—where the book ceased being a rocket ship and instead created space for the characters to breathe and doubt and ponder things like mercy as a species of injustice—those were the moments that, for me, made the book great. When you take that risk and allow your characters to be human and depart from the linear expectations of the page-turner, you can lose your story, but if you’re sensitive you can go down those rabbit holes and return and your reader will follow you. Would I have followed Klay all the way through if he were not the National Book Award winning author of Redeployment? Did he earn that slack? Would his editors have permitted him those wide berths that gave such shape and dimension to his characters and allowed him to tie together Pennsylvania, Afghanistan, and Colombia? Those extra-textual questions are fascinating to me and get at the root of some of the thornier aesthetic issues of our time: Who is allowed to tell certain stories? How does biography shape destiny in the literary marketplace and in the intimate psyche of the reader and writer?

As far as film, I’ll go with first thought best thought: Mank. James Tate Hill and I watched that the other night and, although I suspect we both liked it for different reasons, I think, broadly speaking, we both were impressed by how original it was. I had never heard of Herman Mankiewicz. I had no idea that he was the man behind the curtain—the author—of Citizen Kane. I thought Oldman’s performance was brilliant. Here’s this “court jester”—Mank—serving up the truth to William Randolph Hearst and corporate Hollywood during the Great Depression. Mank is a truth-teller, but as the Depression approaches and belts tighten, you can see that Hollywood has increasingly short patience with the fool’s wisdom, his critiques of the system. Mank decides to back the socialist author, Upton Sinclair, for governor of California in 1934, and it nearly gets him canceled like so many folks in the American media who dared back Bernie Sanders. Like Oldman’s Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, Mankiewicz is a man whose story will forever be attached to a more famous man—Orson Welles—the one outsider in Hollywood who dared support the peek behind the Hearstian curtain.

The film is shot in black and white, which initially suggests another time, another Hollywood. But, of course, very little has changed. There continues to be very porous borders between state, finance, and entertainment—DC, New York, and Hollywood. But any number of think pieces or podcasts could touch on that hairy subject. The thing that makes Mank so original and powerful is the way it flips everything via the black and white skins of nostalgia. You go back in time to the good old days of the great white men—Hearst and Welles—but Fincher hardly gives any lines at all to the bloviations of the leading man and the mogul. No, Fincher has hidden in the future in the costume of the past. He is a writer’s writer. His main character is the author and it’s nothing short of magic the way he and Oldman convert this talking head for the working class—this mind—into a compelling embodiment of the elephant in America’s room: our blind appetite for propaganda.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on the second installment of American Delphi and an essay called “Teaching Conspiracy Theories at a Historically Black College.” I’m almost done with the essay, but I’m not entirely sure I want to go out with it because it touches on extremely sensitive material. Over the past twenty years I’ve watched Republicans and Democrats weaponize conspiracy theories as a way of destroying each other. Whether it’s Republicans convincing folks the pandemic is a hoax or Democrats destroying a woman of color like Tulsi Gabbard by suggesting she’s a Russian agent, it’s the same old story from Mank: American propaganda. Meanwhile, our mainstream media continually takes the simpleton’s stance by paternalistically cautioning its readers, i.e. our citizens, away from conspiracy theories. The contemporary “hot take” on conspiracy theories is that they are purely the domain of incels and toothless and illiterate inbreds from the far right.

Of course, this is not the whole story.

Back when I was teaching at North Carolina A&T, the historically black college that educated the mastermind of 9/11, I saw another side. Many of my African-American students would urge me to watch conspiracy theory documentaries and to teach them—to use them to inspire critical thinking. Conditioned as I was by white corporate media, I was initially reluctant to respect my students’ wishes and tastes. However, I felt torn after awhile. I didn’t want to be one of those crusty white teachers who only taught his specialty or simply built a syllabus around the greatest hits from the great white canon. So, after doing a dive into the literature on how a teacher might do this—use conspiracy theories in the classroom—I decided to take my students’ advice and meet them where they lived. And it was transformative. Rather than view the conspiracy theory from the POV of the privileged white kid with an obsession over the assassination of the privileged white Kennedy brothers, I found myself looking at the conversation from the POV of a people who had, historically, experienced actual criminal conspiracy after actual criminal conspiracy, often under the guise of science and criminal justice. Using viral underground documentaries like Zeitgeist in the introductory rhetoric and composition classroom, I came to see the conspiracy theory in a new light. It was not always a place for offering simple answers in the face of complex history. In many ways, it was a place for raising questions, and in a country so riddled by propaganda, good questions, increasingly, can seem more nourishing than answers. But this grows so dicey in the contemporary pandemic moment where we just witnessed Sandra Lindsay, an African-American nurse, as the first person to take the Covid-19 vaccine. Does understanding the murder of Fred Hampton and Malcom X or the framing of the Central Park Five help us understand our country’s growing resistance to official narratives? Yes, of course. But what about MK-Ultra and Tuskegee and the systemic use of poor people and people of color as government guinea pigs? When so many blacks have indeed been unwittingly used as test subjects for government science, how do we begin the urgent and healing conversation that will give national and international science—global health—the credibility it requires to be effective in the coming decades? These are the kinds of issues the essay wrangles with. Like with most of my work, I’m trying to navigate that strange pastoral zone where history and mystery meet and swap costumes. But I’m not sure about this one. What do you think? Should I go out with it?

12or 20 (second series) questions;