Fiction (Poetry) Reboot: Interview with Kim Roberts

Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot!

Over the summer, I had the privilege of interviewing poet Kim Roberts. Next week, I’m excited to report that Kim will be visiting Winona State University! (Event: Tuesday, October 23rd at 7pm in Stark Hall 103.) In honor of the visit, I am re-posting the interview, along with a bit of information about Kim and about her recent work (a favorite of mine, resonating with my medical/humanist soul): Animal Magnetism.

I hope you can join us in welcoming Kim to Winona, Minnesota!

About the Author

Kim Roberts is the author of five books, most recently Animal Magnetism, winner of the Pearl Poetry Prize (Pearl Editions, 2011), and the anthology Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC (Plan B Press, 2010).  She edits the journal Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and co-edits, with Dan Vera, the web exhibit DC Writers’ Homes.  She has been a writer-in-residence at 13 artist colonies (and is scheduled for a 14th this July), and is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Humanities Council of Washington, and the DC Commission on the Arts.  Individual poems of hers have appeared in literary journals beginning with every letter of the alphabet, have been set to music and modern dance, and have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Mandarin.  Roberts will be a visiting writer on the campus of Winona State University this coming October.  Her website: http://www.kimroberts.org.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

1.  As a medical humanist, 18th c historian and fiction writer, I find I spend much of my time crossing (transgressing?) boundaries. Your own work, with its amazing nexus of soul, spirit, embodiment–and even anatomy and biology–seem to transcend traditional genres. Can you tell us about the nature of your border crossing? What kinds of obstacles (if any) have you overcome to achieve this beautiful synthesis?

I have no training of any kind in science–yet I am drawn to scientific subjects often in poetry.  Sometimes I think it’s my very ignorance that provides a path for the poem, because, if I’ve done it right, the reader will experience the same sense of surprise and discovery as I do.  But that’s probably too simplistic–I do a fair amount of research for most poems, and I hope that comes through as well, so the reader trusts the voice of the narrator.  I don’t think of my poems as crossing boundaries.  I think of them as balancing the tension of opposites.

2.  I know that some of your poems have longer narrative arcs (The Wishbone Galaxy). Can you talk to us about poem and story? What and the benefits or limitations of different poetic forms?

The Wishbone Galaxy includes a sequence of 14 connected poems, “The Constellation Frigidaire,” which was the last thing I wrote for that book–and I think is the strongest part of the book.  It’s a sequence about the breakup of a romantic relationship, using the stars and planets as metaphors for what went wrong.  What I learned from working on that was the joy of continuity–that I could still make individual poems, but that I didn’t have to make up the entire world from scratch each time I sat down in front of a blank piece of paper.

My second book of poems, The Kimnama, is a single long poem.  That book was created out of a travel journal I kept while living in India.  I went back through the journal and lifted lines, then reworked them and rearranged them and that became the book.  The title comes from a tradition of the Mughal Emperors of northern India–they had scribes keep daybooks on their reigns that were named for each emperor–so, for example, Babur’s was the Baburnama, and Akbar’s was the Akbarnama.  “Kmnama” basically means “the history of Kim.”

My latest book of poems, Animal Magnestism, intertwines two distinct sequences, the Medical Museum poems and the Imaginary Husband poems.  I wrote those two series over the same time period, but in my mind they were completely separate and distinct.  Michael Gushue, who is co-editor of the press that published my second book, Vrzhu Press–he was the one who told me that they belonged together.  I resisted mightily at first–but he was right.  Sometimes we get too close to our own poems, and it takes a valued outside opinion to set us straight.

So you see I like series.  Most times I am not aware I am actually starting a series.  I just find myself going back again and again to a certain subject, so it’s clear I’m not done wrestling with it.  (The big exception to that of course was writing “The Kimnama”–that was always a long poem, even before I started writing.)

The benefit of writing in a series is the tension–there’s that word again!–that the writer gets to develop between the lyric impulse of each short section, versus the overall narrative of the whole. Plus I like the satisfaction of having a “project.”

3.  My students are often both intimidated and intrigued by rhyme and meter. Can you offer suggestions for how to make it a strength and not a weakness?

I love writing in rhyme and meter!  I find it’s a wonderful tool for forcing writers to speak and think differently–to break patterns that we all form when communicating, and use different word choice, different syntax, different word order, different pacing.  I write in form quite a lot.  Sometimes I use form as a starting point, then revise the poem into free verse later.  And I love the traditional forms that are less obvious–where the reader doesn’t recognize the form they’re reading.  I think as writers we have a  duty to learn as much as we can about the structure of our language, to love it completely, and find new ways to play with the words.  If students are intimidated, then they’re not allowing themselves to try and fail–which is the key to all art, as far as I’m concerned. You won’t push yourself to try new things and take risks unless you gives yourself permission to fail.  Students must learn–like all of us–to be more forgiving of themselves, and to be more playful.

4.  Your use of language is truly inspired. Can you talk about the process of refining the language of a poem? How do you begin? What is the revision process like? How do you know when you are “done”?

Thank you!  That’s lovely to hear.  I do think that poems need to be equally about what they are saying (the plot) and how they are saying it (the song elements)–and that a poem builds meaning equally out of both.  Plot and characterization offer a way into the poem, and they offer an emotional connection to the reader.  But most plot is not going to be new.  We humans rarely come up with anything truly new.  So the music of our language must pick up the slack–we bring surprise to our poems through the word choice, pacing, line breaks, line length, alliteration, internal rhyme, rhythm, etc.  All forms of repetition (of sound, beat, word, refrain) are pleasurable if handled well–and the music brings texture and nuance to the plot.

As to how you know you’re done–that’s a hard one.  T.S. Eliot once said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”  I am an inveterate tinkerer, so I can keep a poem in draft form for months, sometimes years.  But I have a very talented writer’s group I depend upon–we meet once a month and discuss works in progress.  They are great about telling me firmly where I’ve gone down a wrong road, and where my language sags, and steering me back on the right path.  And I have some very valued friends who I depend upon when I start putting poems together to make a book, and they are good at telling me which poems need to get cut, and rearranging poems.  I think it’s a good idea to get advice.  The writing process is solitary.  Much of the revising process is too.  But everyone needs guidance from friends.

5.  From where do you draw your inspiration(s)?

From books for the most part.  I find something I’m reading fascinates me, and then I want to read more.  I also love museums, and looking at art and artifacts is a continual source of inspiration.

6.  You are also the editor of Beltway; has the experience shaped or changed your approach to writing?

Oh yes.  I started Beltway Poetry Quarterly in January 2000–so I’ve been doing it quite a while now.  And as with anything, practice makes you better.  The longer I do it, the better editor I become–and those are some of the same skills I need when revising my own work.  The journal has definitely helped hone my critical thinking skills.

It has also helped me connect more deeply to my community, for which I am eternally grateful.  I publish writers from the greater Washington, DC region and the Mid-Atlantic, and the journal has provided me introductions to so many writers I admire.

7.  Do you have suggestions for aspiring poets, especially as concerns publication?

Yes–read.  Read voraciously, constantly.  Read things you are drawn to immediately, then challenge yourself with things that are harder.  Read what comforts you, and what makes you squirm.  Don’t stop.

8.  Are there any resources you would like to suggest?

Any ambitious writer can teach herself more about language, and get more mastery over her use of language, by studying poems in traditional verse forms and trying to write in those forms.  There are traditional forms from every country and every culture–some translate into English better than others.  The book I spent a year poring over (I interned myself to this book!) is out of print now, but I still love it, and you can often find it in used book outlets.  It’s called Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms, edited by Philip Dacey and David Jauss.  They compiled a great collection of poems–and the Appendix at the back where they define each form is invaluable.  I would have added more forms, personally–I wish ghazals and some other Asian forms were included.  But this is a small quibble: the book should be a starting point for exploring; we should not expect it to cover the whole universe.  Also: writers should get themselves a good thesaurus.  When you get stuck on a poem, change some key words for synonyms.  And then I think everyone should read the 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  If you have read it already, it helps to read it again.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

If you have announcements or items you would like me to address in this section of the Fiction Reboot, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

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Fiction Reboot Author Interview: Stephanie Smith

Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot!

Today, I am pleased to host Stephanie Smith, author of the recently released Warpaint, and a professor at the University of Florida.

Thank you, Stephanie, for giving us your thoughts on the writing (and academic) life!

_________________________

AUTHOR BIO

Stephanie Smith took her PhD from Berkeley in 1990, and is a Professor of English at the University of Florida. Examining the intersections of science, literature, politics, race and gender, her essays appear in such journals as differences, Criticism, Genders, American Literature and American Literary History. A 1998 Visiting NEH Scholar at UCLA, she is the author of Conceived By Liberty and Household Words, as well as three novels, Snow-Eyes, The Boy Who Was Thrown Away and Other Nature. She has held fiction residencies at Dorland, Norcroft and Hedgebrook. In September of 2012, the first novel in a trilogy to be published by Thames River Press in London, Warpaint, will be launched, to be followed by Baby Rocket (Dec. 2012) and Content Burns (Spring, 2012). Currently she is also at work on a book about publishing and American letters, The Muse and the Marketplace.

WAR PAINT

A haunting tale of friendship and rivalry between three women artists, who’ve known each other for years, who must come to terms with imminent mortality and artistic frustration: Liz Moore, born poor in Minnesota, fought her way to New York in the 1920s, but isn’t “discovered” until late in life; C.C. Davis, a well-to-do New Yorker is Moore’s only student, and rival, who, just after WWII achieves some small success, but feels, as she faces cancer in 2002, a failure; and Quiola Kerr, part Ojibwe, once C.C.’s lover, who is caught in the middle, and who, as a painter in the 21st century, has the most doubts about art’s value in an electronic world. In April 2002, all three meet a week before C.C.’s mastectomy at a MOMA retrospective for Liz Moore, but their reunion is tense. Still, they try to cope, until C.C. makes an unexpected and controversial choice, one which nearly breaks the bonds these three took so many decades to forge, and forces Quiola to try to confront Liz, who she believes deliberately sabotaged C.C.’s career. War-paint (Sept. 2012) is the first of three, intertwined novels from Thames River Press, all of which deal with contemporary women who are struggling to balance art, love, illness and trauma; the second, Baby Rocket (Dec. 2012) is the story of an abandoned, adopted child, who, as an adult, must heal these ruptures in her past, and Content Burns follows two women in the same family separated by three centuries, both of whom survive historical trauma: the massacre of the Pequot tribe in 1637 and the loss of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

1. I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences?

Yes, Asimov’s quote describes me—I write because I am. I met him once, when I was still a college student, and Asimov’s magazine published one of my first short stories. I started writing when I was just a little kid, and illustrated my own stories, since I love also to paint and sketch. The first story I remember writing at the age of six or so was called “Christmas with the Stumbles” about a family that kept knocking each other over. Not Pulitzer material! I started writing seriously in grade school and knew by the time I was in high school that I wanted to be a writer; I went to Westfield High School in NJ and worked on the high school magazine Folio, along with the poet and critic James Longenbach, who is also now a professor at the University of Rochester. But it wasn’t until I went to college that I dedicated time every day to my own work.

2. Many authors (myself included) come from academic backgrounds where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. As a full professor at a major research university, can you say a bit about when you decided to “write for real”—that decision to write for publication and give your work the time and energy it deserves? On a related note, how do you balance your time as an academic and an author?

As I said, I started “writing for real” in college. My college room-mate (Anne Kibbie is now a professor of 18th C. British lit. at Bowdoin in Maine) wanted to be a poet and I wanted to be a novelist, so we kept each other on track and read each other’s work. She told me to find a living author I truly admired and take a class from him or her, because having encouragement and praise from someone I truly admired would be a real drug. So I chose Ursula K. LeGuin and during the summer after I graduated from college, I took a workshop (Haystack from Portland State University) from her (and two other women SF writers, Vonda N. McIntyre and Elizabeth Lynn).

The experience was mind-blowing and as a result, I moved to Portland, Oregon to be close to her, and to continue to work with her, which I did for about 5 years. I also leaned very heavily on Vonda McIntyre, who was unbelievably generous and kind, when I was more or less a kid. Both of these women read my work for me. In fact, Ursula invited me up to her home to write in the mornings, as she did, before I went off to my evening job at Willamette Weekly, and that’s how my first fantasy YA novel, Snow-Eyes got written. She read it for me, and encouraged me to send it to her editor, the late Jean Karl at Atheneum, who was a marvelous editor. The book was published in 1985, and in that same year, I was accepted into the English graduate program at UC Berkeley (as a medievalist) because being an academic was the only job I could think of that would let me write as part of my job description. But I did not want an MFA, I wanted a PhD. My experience with MFA programs (as an undergraduate at BU) was not a happy one: I became convinced that all you learned at a university program was how to write like the instructor. Plus I’m a very, very serious person. Too serious, some might say, very “intense.” Scholarship and research appeal to that side of me. I LOVED graduate school—everything about it, the work, the competition, the politics, the drive! You have to be driven to do a PhD, especially at Berkeley. I did mine in 5 years, while publishing my second YA novel and starting my third SF novel. But when I took my job at the University of Florida, things changed.

The department at UF in 1990 was a very, very hostile place to anyone trying to do both fiction and criticism, most particularly hostile to anyone writing what they call genre fiction and some folks weren’t too happy about my feminism, either, so I was told my fiction “did not count” and I was actively discouraged and in fact on several occasions, insulted. Part of this had to do with my feminist politics, part with the fact that I wrote fantasy and SF, part having to do with the culture of the department which had been hostile to junior professors for years. In 1995 when my first academic book (Conceived By Liberty) came out from Cornell and my first SF novel Other Nature was published by TOR, I started to want to branch out a little, to try something different—which made my F/SF publishers unhappy. And so I’ve waited a long, long, long time for my desire to expand bear fruit, but I signed a three-novel contract with Thames River Press in London for the novels I’ve been writing since 1995, and the first one, Warpaint comes out this September 15 (2012). How do I balance my time? Not easily. I get up very early (4:30-5 am) to write fiction first thing in the day. Everyday.

3. I know that your research concerns intersections of science, literature, politics, race and gender—though I recognize such matters don’t always make it into mainstream fiction. Could you say a bit about how this perspective affects your work as a fiction author?

My interests in science, literature, politics, race and gender tends to make everything I write fairly complex and unpredictable, and mainstream American popular culture is just not either unpredictable or complex. But being interested in this unusual nexus of interests makes for a fascinating set of concerns, at least to my mind. Let me put this another way—science and fiction several centuries ago were not that far apart: mythology and alchemy are good examples of this, and I like to keep alive the sense that we must make sense of our world by telling tales that explain what we experience.

4. Related to Q3, has writing fiction changed your perspective on research? On teaching?

No, writing fiction came first for me so it really hasn’t changed my perspective on research. If you want to know something you haven’t been taught, haven’t ever studied or haven’t experienced you either have to research it or try to experience it. For example, something I’m working on now concerns marine biology. I am not a marine biologist. So I went and talked to marine biologists here at the University of Florida, got their advice and such—people are remarkably helpful when you just ask!

5. Your latest work, part of a trilogy, carefully treats the struggles of four women—with each other and with themselves. What led you to the topic, and is it an outgrowth of other projects? How do you perceive your audience?

I became interested in women artists not only because I think of myself as one, but because I went to a lecture years and years ago at the Harn Museum of Art at UF about American women painters and how under-appreciated and unknown they tend to be compared to their male counterparts. Many people of heard of Jackson Pollack, for example, but not of his partner, Lee Krasner. I was one such person. Knew lots about male artists and the only female artist I could name was Georgia O’Keefe. So I started educating myself. This led me to think seriously about other endeavors where women have done remarkable things, but are relatively unknown. The second book in the trilogy features women pilots and astronauts; the third looks backward in time to the twin dates of 1637 and 2000 to think through American women who have experienced extreme political trauma, and who survived.

6. Genre can be difficult to manage, but you have written YA as well as adult novels. How do you find the transition between these?

The answer is that I don’t transition. I always say that I write for adults who just happen to be young. Most young adults think of themselves as adults and I respect that. I never write down, or water anything down. When I write a YA I do think a little bit more about what vocabulary I will use, but I want the reader, young or otherwise, to be challenged a little, to think beyond comfortable boundaries

7. Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?

I approach my writing like Sylvia Plath did: it is my job. It is what I do. If I’m not inspired, it doesn’t matter—I write through the tough spots. Sometimes you throw that stuff away but you are always exercising your mind. I’ve said this before: it is like being an elite athlete. You must work. Hard. Everyday, flexing, stretching, working, trying. So I’ve never had writer’s block. I’ve had to erase, revise, discard, edit but I’ve never felt blocked, for which I’m very grateful. Revision, it seems to me, is key. You revise until it feels right, until the people on the page feel real to you, more real than people you actually know and until the story seems to fall into place.

8. As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of networking and workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism?

This is a hard question for me to answer because I’m something of a loner. My greatest mentor was Ursula K. LeGuin, when I was in my 20s. After those years, sometimes I would ask close friends to read pieces of the novels, to see what they thought, but over the years I’ve become more or less my own reader/editor.

9. You are, I believe, working on a new book about aesthetics and the publishing industry in the United States, titled The Muse and The Marketplace. What insight can you give new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world? Or even into screen writing? What about the need/value of agents?

Breaking in to a publications is very hard to do AND very easy, these days. The Muse and the Marketplace is really more focused on history and the turn into the 20th century, so I can talk about the history of publishing more easily than talking about now, because now offers so many options, due to technology, and yet those options are not always viable if you want critics to take you seriously. For example, self-publishing is becoming more and more popular due to the internet. There is a whole industry called “publishing services” which allows you to publish your own book and some of these works attract an audience. But you still have to deal with the stigma of “vanity” publishing. Vanity publishing gets you little to no respect in the main. Libraries won’t buy self-published material in the main. So it’s hard to break into a space where there is room for an unknown and respect. One of my students, Justin Taylor, has done so but so many of my students have wanted to write and are writing and getting little attention. London and New York still rule the publishing world more or less, and agents can get you past certain firewalls that publishers have—indeed, so can certain MFA programs. Or a good mentor. All I can say is really don’t give up. If you are a writer, write, no matter what.

10. Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)

Ursula K. LeGuin without a doubt, and Toni Morrison who I had the good fortune to meet at Berkeley—she gave me very sound and wonderful advice as a graduate student. I took a wonderful workshop from Michael Cunningham at Provincetown as well and he inspired me greatly because he had a rough patch in his career and almost quit. I know how that feels. But I also feel very close to a number of artists, living and dead, like Herman Melville. James Baldwin. Mavis Gallant. William Trevor. Nella Larson. Sylvia Plath. Henry James. Willa Cather. Angela Carter. And artists, like O’Keefe or Louise Nevelson. If the work is grand and daring, or deeply felt and comforting or it shakes you to your soul, that’s all that counts. And I’d also have to confess that I’m a murder/mystery junkie. I grew up on Sherlock Holmes and when I need a little comfort, I always return to Conan Doyle in any of his manifestations. Jeremy Brett got me through the PhD. Benedict Cumberbatch has taken his place recently. I just got a kitten I named Sherlock! A bit cheesy, but fun.

11. Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?

Publishers Marketplace has been good to me. And I would recommend writer’s retreats where you can really focus, like Hedgebrook for Women Writers on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, which has been a marvelous resource for me; I went to Norcroft as well, but unfortunately it no longer exists. Or the Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s retreat, or the Vermont Studio. Some of these retreats, like U-Cross, are really kind and helpful to unknown or just starting out writers. And you meet other writers, other people who are struggling just as you are. That’s invaluable, to talk to other people about what you are trying to do.

1.I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences?

Yes, Asimov’s quote describes me—I write because I am. I met him once, when I was still a college student, and Asimov’s magazine published one of my first short stories. I started writing when I was just a little kid, and illustrated my own stories, since I love also to paint and sketch. The first story I remember writing at the age of six or so was called “Christmas with the Stumbles” about a family that kept knocking each other over. Not Pulitzer material! I started writing seriously in grade school and knew by the time I was in high school that I wanted to be a writer; I went to Westfield High School in NJ and worked on the high school magazine Folio, along with the poet and critic James Longenbach, who is also now a professor at the University of Rochester. But it wasn’t until I went to college that I dedicated time every day to my own work.

2.Many authors (myself included) come from academic backgrounds where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. As a full professor at a major research university, can you say a bit about when you decided to “write for real”—that decision to write for publication and give your work the time and energy it deserves? On a related note, how do you balance your time as an academic and an author?

As I said, I started “writing for real” in college. My college room-mate (Anne Kibbie is now a professor of 18th C. British lit. at Bowdoin in Maine) wanted to be a poet and I wanted to be a novelist, so we kept each other on track and read each other’s work. She told me to find a living author I truly admired and take a class from him or her, because having encouragement and praise from someone I truly admired would be a real drug. So I chose Ursula K. LeGuin and during the summer after I graduated from college, I took a workshop (Haystack from Portland State University) from her (and two other women SF writers, Vonda N. McIntyre and Elizabeth Lynn).

The experience was mind-blowing and as a result, I moved to Portland, Oregon to be close to her, and to continue to work with her, which I did for about 5 years. I also leaned very heavily on Vonda McIntyre, who was unbelievably generous and kind, when I was more or less a kid. Both of these women read my work for me. In fact, Ursula invited me up to her home to write in the mornings, as she did, before I went off to my evening job at Willamette Weekly, and that’s how my first fantasy YA novel, Snow-Eyes got written. She read it for me, and encouraged me to send it to her editor, the late Jean Karl at Atheneum, who was a marvelous editor. The book was published in 1985, and in that same year, I was accepted into the English graduate program at UC Berkeley (as a medievalist) because being an academic was the only job I could think of that would let me write as part of my job description. But I did not want an MFA, I wanted a PhD. My experience with MFA programs (as an undergraduate at BU) was not a happy one: I became convinced that all you learned at a university program was how to write like the instructor. Plus I’m a very, very serious person. Too serious, some might say, very “intense.” Scholarship and research appeal to that side of me. I LOVED graduate school—everything about it, the work, the competition, the politics, the drive! You have to be driven to do a PhD, especially at Berkeley. I did mine in 5 years, while publishing my second YA novel and starting my third SF novel. But when I took my job at the University of Florida, things changed.

The department at UF in 1990 was a very, very hostile place to anyone trying to do both fiction and criticism, most particularly hostile to anyone writing what they call genre fiction and some folks weren’t too happy about my feminism, either, so I was told my fiction “did not count” and I was actively discouraged and in fact on several occasions, insulted. Part of this had to do with my feminist politics, part with the fact that I wrote fantasy and SF, part having to do with the culture of the department which had been hostile to junior professors for years. In 1995 when my first academic book (Conceived By Liberty) came out from Cornell and my first SF novel Other Nature was published by TOR, I started to want to branch out a little, to try something different—which made my F/SF publishers unhappy. And so I’ve waited a long, long, long time for my desire to expand bear fruit, but I signed a three-novel contract with Thames River Press in London for the novels I’ve been writing since 1995, and the first one, Warpaint comes out this September 15 (2012). How do I balance my time? Not easily. I get up very early (4:30-5 am) to write fiction first thing in the day. Everyday.

3.I know that your research concerns intersections of science, literature, politics, race and gender—though I recognize such matters don’t always make it into mainstream fiction. Could you say a bit about how this perspective affects your work as a fiction author?

My interests in science, literature, politics, race and gender tends to make everything I write fairly complex and unpredictable, and mainstream American popular culture is just not either unpredictable or complex. But being interested in this unusual nexus of interests makes for a fascinating set of concerns, at least to my mind. Let me put this another way—science and fiction several centuries ago were not that far apart: mythology and alchemy are good examples of this, and I like to keep alive the sense that we must make sense of our world by telling tales that explain what we experience.

4.Related to Q3, has writing fiction changed your perspective on research? On teaching?

No, writing fiction came first for me so it really hasn’t changed my perspective on research. If you want to know something you haven’t been taught, haven’t ever studied or haven’t experienced you either have to research it or try to experience it. For example, something I’m working on now concerns marine biology. I am not a marine biologist. So I went and talked to marine biologists here at the University of Florida, got their advice and such—people are remarkably helpful when you just ask!

5.Your latest work, part of a trilogy, carefully treats the struggles of four women—with each other and with themselves. What led you to the topic, and is it an outgrowth of other projects? How do you perceive your audience?

I became interested in women artists not only because I think of myself as one, but because I went to a lecture years and years ago at the Harn Museum of Art at UF about American women painters and how under-appreciated and unknown they tend to be compared to their male counterparts. Many people of heard of Jackson Pollack, for example, but not of his partner, Lee Krasner. I was one such person. Knew lots about male artists and the only female artist I could name was Georgia O’Keefe. So I started educating myself. This led me to think seriously about other endeavors where women have done remarkable things, but are relatively unknown. The second book in the trilogy features women pilots and astronauts; the third looks backward in time to the twin dates of 1637 and 2000 to think through American women who have experienced extreme political trauma, and who survived.

6.Genre can be difficult to manage, but you have written YA as well as adult novels. How do you find the transition between these?

The answer is that I don’t transition. I always say that I write for adults who just happen to be young. Most young adults think of themselves as adults and I respect that. I never write down, or water anything down. When I write a YA I do think a little bit more about what vocabulary I will use, but I want the reader, young or otherwise, to be challenged a little, to think beyond comfortable boundaries

7.Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?

I approach my writing like Sylvia Plath did: it is my job. It is what I do. If I’m not inspired, it doesn’t matter—I write through the tough spots. Sometimes you throw that stuff away but you are always exercising your mind. I’ve said this before: it is like being an elite athlete. You must work. Hard. Everyday, flexing, stretching, working, trying. So I’ve never had writer’s block. I’ve had to erase, revise, discard, edit but I’ve never felt blocked, for which I’m very grateful. Revision, it seems to me, is key. You revise until it feels right, until the people on the page feel real to you, more real than people you actually know and until the story seems to fall into place.

8.As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of networking and workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism?

This is a hard question for me to answer because I’m something of a loner. My greatest mentor was Ursula K. LeGuin, when I was in my 20s. After those years, sometimes I would ask close friends to read pieces of the novels, to see what they thought, but over the years I’ve become more or less my own reader/editor.

9.You are, I believe, working on a new book about aesthetics and the publishing industry in the United States, titled The Muse and The Marketplace. What insight can you give new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world? Or even into screen writing? What about the need/value of agents?

Breaking in to a publications is very hard to do AND very easy, these days. The Muse and the Marketplace is really more focused on history and the turn into the 20th century, so I can talk about the history of publishing more easily than talking about now, because now offers so many options, due to technology, and yet those options are not always viable if you want critics to take you seriously. For example, self-publishing is becoming more and more popular due to the internet. There is a whole industry called “publishing services” which allows you to publish your own book and some of these works attract an audience. But you still have to deal with the stigma of “vanity” publishing. Vanity publishing gets you little to no respect in the main. Libraries won’t buy self-published material in the main. So it’s hard to break into a space where there is room for an unknown and respect. One of my students, Justin Taylor, has done so but so many of my students have wanted to write and are writing and getting little attention. London and New York still rule the publishing world more or less, and agents can get you past certain firewalls that publishers have—indeed, so can certain MFA programs. Or a good mentor. All I can say is really don’t give up. If you are a writer, write, no matter what.

10.Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)

Ursula K. LeGuin without a doubt, and Toni Morrison who I had the good fortune to meet at Berkeley—she gave me very sound and wonderful advice as a graduate student. I took a wonderful workshop from Michael Cunningham at Provincetown as well and he inspired me greatly because he had a rough patch in his career and almost quit. I know how that feels. But I also feel very close to a number of artists, living and dead, like Herman Melville. James Baldwin. Mavis Gallant. William Trevor. Nella Larson. Sylvia Plath. Henry James. Willa Cather. Angela Carter. And artists, like O’Keefe or Louise Nevelson. If the work is grand and daring, or deeply felt and comforting or it shakes you to your soul, that’s all that counts. And I’d also have to confess that I’m a murder/mystery junkie. I grew up on Sherlock Holmes and when I need a little comfort, I always return to Conan Doyle in any of his manifestations. Jeremy Brett got me through the PhD. Benedict Cumberbatch has taken his place recently. I just got a kitten I named Sherlock! A bit cheesy, but fun.

11.Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?

Publishers Marketplace has been good to me. And I would recommend writer’s retreats where you can really focus, like Hedgebrook for Women Writers on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, which has been a marvelous resource for me; I went to Norcroft as well, but unfortunately it no longer exists. Or the Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s retreat, or the Vermont Studio. Some of these retreats, like U-Cross, are really kind and helpful to unknown or just starting out writers. And you meet other writers, other people who are struggling just as you are. That’s invaluable, to talk to other people about what you are trying to do.

Friday Fiction Feature

Welcome back to the Friday Fiction Feature on the Fiction Reboot!

Today I will be listing some new releases from the Thames River Press–an imprint I featured earlier this week. Don’t forget, you can recommend books for the Fiction Feature by contacting me at bschillace.

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NEW FROM THAMES RIVER PRESS

Wish

Michael Tolkein’s WISH.

Farmers in their alpine valley are haunted by Fængler, a cunning old enchanter who ruins their lives by using an ancient wishing chain of powerful stones to spoil crops and steal children, cows and goats. Young Berwald and his sister Clara set out without their parents knowing, to climb into the next valley, seize the chain, free their neighbourhood of fear, and wish for whatever they want. But they soon learn that the wild world beyond their home is full of strange forces – some good, some dark and twisted – and almost every wish they make adds new complications and disagreements. Who can rescue them from this fearful and dangerous adventure? Before Adam, their angry and worried father, can reach them, he must learn to follow seemingly useless leads, and to listen carefully to the tale that lies behind the villain’s bitterness. This timeless fantasy tale is brought to life by Michael Tolkien in a vivid and enchanting verse retelling.

Pangea

PANGEA:

This anthology of thirty-four short stories by twenty-five writers from thirteen countries reflects its title, ‘Pangea’, meaning ‘all lands’ or ‘all earth’. The writers featured include journalists, scientists, a lawyer, a costume designer, a magazine editor, a crofter in the Scottish highlands, a bookseller, and a writer-in-residence at a young offenders’ prison, and their stories are as different and as interesting as their occupations. Their narratives are equally diverse and distinctive; there are quiet voices, brave voices, tender voices, and haunting voices. And yet the perspectives of this collection, its range of tones – be they the raw intensity of a man’s confrontation and failure on a road in Scotland, the dramatic preparations for a big birthday party in Nigeria, or the moment a young man comes face-to-face with his Bollywood idol – have enormous commonality; the conflicts faced and the emotions felt by the characters are recognizable, irrespective of the cultural identities of the authors or the cultural settings of the stories themselves. The writers of these unique short stories are all members of the online writers’ community known as Writewords.

Criminal Revenge

Conrad Jones CRIMINAL REVENGE

When a bomb explodes in a van parked outside a Liverpool mosque, local police suspect it to be a racially motivated attack carried out by local right-wing extremists. However, as Detective Superintendent Alec Ramsay’s investigation deepens, he uncovers a simmering feud between two families that goes back decades. Ramsay finds himself struggling to bring the real killers to justice, as international political concerns mingle with the personal motives of revenge and retribution at the heart of the attacks. The shocking events of the past have bound these two families together with bonds of hatred that will prove hard to break…

The Woman Who Made Men Cry

William Coles THE WOMAN WHO MADE MEN CRY.

It’s 1998 and Kim is a journalist in New York City. He thinks he’s found the only woman for him: Elise is beautiful, intelligent and, it goes without saying, a sensational lover. The only catch is that she doesn’t want just him – and he’s agreed to it. For months on end, Kim is tormented by the knowledge that his Elise is sleeping with someone else.

Can a man be so smitten with someone that he allows himself to be ruled by her entirely?

A bittersweet love story about how far you can go for the woman you love – and at what cost.

A Thousand Strands of Black HairSeiko Tanabe’s THOUSAND STRANDS OF BLACK HAIR.

This book examines and re-imagines the turbulent and intertwined lives of Akiko Yosano (1878–1942) and Tekkan Yosano (1873–1935), two poets who sparked a revolution in the world of Japanese ‘tanka’ (short-verse classical poetry). The author explores their passionate and at times tormented relationship, using documentary sources and their poetry along with her own storytelling abilities in order to evoke the intimate details of their lives, together and apart.