Natashia Deón Interview

Alex Clendenning and Bailey Bujnosek interview Natashia Deón, author of the critically acclaimed Grace.

Natashia Deón is an attorney and law professor based in Los Angeles. She runs the quarterly reading series, Dirty Laundry Lit, a non-profit that focuses on introducing people to literature. Her first novel, Grace (2016), has received awards from the American Library Association’s Black Caucus and the Kirkus Review, and was part of The New York Times’ Top Books of 2016.

 

Q: Your quarterly reading series, Dirty Laundry Lit, promotes readings for authors and has become well known among the Los Angeles literary world. What was your inspiration to create it? What pushes you to continue doing it, and what do you hope the audience gets from it when they leave?

A: I want them to see that we all have these different experiences, but there are things we all have in common. I have people of different political opinions get on my stage. I try to create as much diversity on stage as possible. The readings I’d gone to before were all the same, all white guys of a certain age group, all buddies, but there was never anybody who looked like me. So every time, I have eight readers who come from different backgrounds. Diversity is not prescribed, but it’s something else. I think it’s also a diversity of experience. We’re so limited in what diversity is, so I started Dirty Laundry because I wanted people to tell their stories, so we could connect in real ways.

 

Q: What was your thought process when writing Grace and how did you approach this topic? What kind of research did you do while working on it?

A: I did a lot of research just on the time period and what people were like. I wanted to know what people were thinking at that time. I thought once the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, all slaves were free.

The novel was rejected by a lot of places. The answers to my book were we already have that book, we already have two slave books coming out, so it kept getting passed. Then I talked to an editor who wanted a whole book to revolve around the Emancipation Proclamation, I said no, I don’t think [the slaves] were happy that day. It wasn’t until after the book was being shopped when I looked into the history, I found out slaves were free two years into the war, but they wouldn’t have walked across battlefields. I went to traditional public school and we weren’t taught that. I rewrote some sections because of it.

History informed a lot of what I wrote, and diary entries, too. I read a lot of diary entries at the time to know what the slaves were thinking about.

 

Q: Grace follows two characters—Naomi, a runaway slave, and Naomi’s daughter, Josie, who grows up during the American Civil War. When writing Grace, was it hard to separate your thought process when writing Naomi’s flashbacks of her past versus her view of Josey’s future?

A: Yeah, it was. Some days I would only write one storyline, I wouldn’t go back and forth. I would only focus on one story, because mother love is different from sexual love. I wanted to understand how she was seeing her daughter.

You don’t have to stay on one story all the time, you can move. When I feel like I use up all the creative energy in one place, I’ll move somewhere else. I wrote most of the novel on the notes in my phone, waiting for things.

 

Q: In class, you mentioned the beginning of Grace coming from a vision you had. How long after you had the vision did you finish the book?

A: Seven years. I wrote screenplays for MTV at the time on the side; I was still a lawyer.

It was daytime, around twelve. I was walking down the hallway, holding my son, and suddenly it was night. I was in the woods; I remember the moon was super bright. I heard a voice in my head and saw a girl running in a yellow dress covered with blood, and she’s pregnant. What happened in the book is what I saw. I thought I was still dreaming. The daytime bright was over, and I told my husband you have to hold him I need to write down what I just saw.

[After I had the vision] I put the novel in a drawer for six months. Driving down the five freeway, I knew what it was about. Okay, step one, take a writing class. As I was writing I was at UCLA extension, the teacher recommended PEN Writing Center. I got my MFA [from UC Riverside-Palm Desert]. I could be crazy or I could be right.

 

Q: Is there a particular reason why you made Naomi a ghost?

A: When I wrote Grace, I didn’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but I knew how to articulate experiences. I had no language for what happened, I just knew that this ghost would see, would behave like this.

 

Q: How was the writing process (in terms of the chapter structure)?

A: It was originally linear and then I just wasn’t interested in it. I wanted it to go faster. I thought wouldn’t it [the novel] be more interesting, because I knew I had a beginning. I wanted to find myself as a writer how she [Naomi] got to this moment, being chased in the woods. It was really me trying to figure, to unwind, how she got to this moment. It would be a better way, as a craft issue, to show the story.

 

Q: When writing Grace, how did you manage to write a book and hold a day job at the same time?

A: You think I’m sane, I’m faking it all so good! I don’t think about it. I just plan the next task and try to be present in everything. You have to be able to leave everything behind to be able to exist

I plan my breaks like holidays. I don’t say that I have to be at work from 9 to 5, I say that I have a break from 6 to 7. That way, you can keep moving knowing you have this break coming up. On break your mind can rest, you can listen to your music. I believe I have to refuel, physically and spiritually.

Writers’ brains are different than everyone else’s. They’re like video cameras in quiet moments, recording. We hold onto things that haunt us, that want to be told again.

 

Q: Were there any particular challenges in writing a book in dialect?

A: Not really, because the dialect that I chose was from my grandmother. It was largely from her; she lived in Tallassee, Alabama. I also combined it with ways we speak now, so it wouldn’t be super heavy and difficult to understand. For me, I made a conscious choice of do I want to help readers or do I want to keep it like how grandma talked? I softened the dialogue to help readers, because I wanted to tell a story with a lot going on and knew I wanted to keep readers. It was a choice to make it simple, but still be strong.

 

Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?

A: Live.

Two Poems By Asha Marie

In “Dinner” and “Blue,” Asha Marie uses powerful imagery to explore family and the self.

Dinner
is served on a picnic blanket
in the garden.
 
The wind comes
with some weary wobble,
caught in some savory sulk
and turns the air sour
and thick
             grandmother’s marmalade
sordidly unabashed
and I rush to take cover inside.
Sister sits through the slew
and pinches at honeysuckle
collected earlier.
She sips on its sweet slobber
and absentmindedly
swallows an ant.
 
She smiles
and I imagine
she feels the tickle
of its little ant feet
running along her taste buds,
toppling down her throat
trying to catch a grip
on her insides,
before boiling in the slop
of her stomach acid.
 
Sister is placid,
somewhat jaded,
              I suppose
through this tantrum
and eventually,
the wind gives in
and leaves
in a fit of pique.
 
In this moment,
I feel a knot of jealousy
jumbling in my belly.
             I long to sit as comfortably as her.
 
Blue
 
I rise with
the hum of car engines
outside my window
and wood creaking
beneath heavy footsteps
in the hall.
 
Did you know
the crickets
chirp and groan
in the morning
the way they do
when the sun sets
and streetlights flicker on
as fireflies flitter
tracing glowing
breadcrumb trails
through the grass?
 
A cricket’s symphony,
(a child’s missing music box)
plays through the night
breaks at midnight
and resumes with dawn
and morning dew.
 
I cup my breasts
with my hands
when I am cold,
in bed,
bent slightly at the hip,
cast like a cicada shell,
molded from clay–
 
This morning is cold.
 
I tuck my arms,
folded, into paper cranes
under my belly
& feel my nipples
cold, & hard
less like diamonds
less like glass.
 
Today,
when the car engines
turn over & hurry off
into the distance,
& the crickets
strike their final
hum, I do not
unfold myself–
not in the blue
of the morning,
not with sputtering
engines nor footsteps
groaning along
because today
I am cold,
saturated blue
and hollow inside.
 
Today, my nipples
cut along my palms,
diamonds cutting
against glass
& there is no
warming me.
 
Asha Marie is a senior at the Fine Arts Center, a competitive magnet arts high school in Greenville, South Carolina, where she studies Creative Writing and Digital Film. Her work has been published in the Chautauqua Literary Magazine and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She is the Social Media Editor for Crashtest Magazine (crashtestmag.com).
 
Visual art by Rudy Falagan

Allison Benis White Interview

The Parallax staff interviews Allison Benis White, an author and professor of poetry.

Allison Benis-White is a renowned poet from Southern California. She has published three books: Self-Portrait with Crayon (2009), Small Porcelain Head (2013), and Please Bury Me in This (2017). She is currently a poetry professor at the University of California, Riverside.  

 

Q: Have you always written poetry and if so, when did you start writing it?

 

A: I first started writing when I was sixteen, and it was traditional high school poetry: angst, and, you know, a lot of violence. Then, I had a boyfriend who had an ex-girlfriend who was a writer, and he introduced me to her, and she took me to my first poetry reading in Venice, California, in a place called Beyond Baroque. It was this huge reading for a literary journal, maybe thirty people read, and my life was transformed by hearing that reading. I mean, before that, I had written in some casual way an adolescent writes, but after that reading I was bewitched. I was enamored with poetry, and not so much with the vision of, “I’m going to devote my life to this genre,” but there were much sharper desires to make something on the page that lasted. So, when I started going to college, I began taking literature classes and studying poetry. Poetry’s always been my genre. I wrote one short story in a creative writing class, and it was okay. The experience of writing in fiction—in prose, really, was tedious for me. There wasn’t a lot of pleasure in it. Whereas writing poetry there always was and still is this great energy and excitement and urgency, and a sense of invention. Somehow, for me, writing in prose— traditional prose, because I do write prose poetry— always felt constricting. I don’t know why, exactly, and I don’t know if that will last, but so far I’m a single genre person.

 

Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?

 

A: The only advice that I think is useful is to read widely, to be patient, and to try and find your own conviction. Those are the three things that kept me in a space where the work feels alive. Advice is a tricky thing, because everybody’s particular. I guess it’s less advice and more of the things that I hold dear and that have kept me in motion.

 

Q: What’s your process when writing ekphrastic poems? Have you written other ekphrastic poems [ekphrastic poetry is poetry written in response to other works of art (i.e., paintings, films, other poems, etc.)] inspired by other art?

 

A: I got this opportunity to go to London by myself, and I was visiting all of the museums I wanted to visit and in one of the gift shops I found this postcard of Degas’ painting, “Combing the Hair.” It’s a young girl, maybe thirteen years old. She has long, red hair, and an au pair is combing her hair. She appears to be in pain–she has curled fists. The whole painting is in reds and oranges, and I was completely enamoured with it. So I bought it, and I brought it home and I set it on my desk a few weeks later. Then, just as a writing exercise I decided to respond to it. I was familiar with ekphrastic poetry, I certainly didn’t know that word, but I knew people wrote in response to paintings. It was a really sort of spontaneous writing exercise, and I found that when I wrote about that painting, I was able to write about my mom leaving when I was very young in a way that I had never been able to do before. I had tried to write about that experience before, but the poems would always end up feeling repetitive, hysterical, and unsatisfying, so I just shoved that topic aside. Somehow, writing in response to that painting facilitated this kind of speech for me. So I tried it again with another Degas painting, and it worked again; I was able to articulate in this really surprising way. I didn’t think this was going to be a book. I was just really happy to be making something that was surprising to me and where I could discover things, so I just kept writing in response to his paintings and it kept working. I was able to go deeper and deeper into stranger spaces and that continued on until I had a manuscript length amount of these poems.

 

Q: Why Degas for this collection specifically?

 

A: Why Degas? I didn’t really understand it, I just capitalized on it, and I didn’t study Degas while I was writing these poems. I was just viewing the painting as a common viewer of art. I didn’t want to be an academic that studied the nature of Degas. However, towards the end of this process I did do some research on him, casually, and I found that his mother had passed when he was very young. There were also rumors that he was impotent. Both of those things are interesting to me because he paints so many dancers, that’s his main gig. So, I thought maybe the loss of his mother and the desire and the inner way to talk about stillness… it’s something I’ve relied upon and it continues to be fruitful.

 

Q: Throughout Self-Portrait with Crayon, you make use of large motifs like abandonment, as well as many smaller motifs. Did these small motifs show up on their own or did you weave them into the pieces purposefully?

 

A: There was no conscious weaving of themes. The way I wrote the poems was sentence by sentence in this state of meditating on each painting. I tried to allow the language to direct the poem. I was conscious of the themes that were emerging, but I never said, for example, “Oh, I need to braid in this theme.” The themes were so prevalent that, regardless of intention, they were going to reveal themselves. But I tried to be led by the painting and the language versus by the theme or a biographical incident.

 

Q: When you were writing this collection, were you focused more on the music or the narrative?

 

A: The music. Almost 100%. I mean I also think the music, the language, was inspired by the meditation on the paintings. And I wrote them sentence by sentence, via the ear. The first line or sentence would dictate, sonically, ultimately, the second line. And when I say sonically, I don’t think that it’s entirely accurate to say that was the driving force, because of course there’s image, and of course there’s pattern, and the narrative, etc. But I think the thing is, especially with prose poetry, is that the ear has to be at work, because you don’t have the luxury of breaking the line, so to keep it buoyant, the ear really has to be awake. As for the narrative, there are very few truly narrative moments in the book, maybe five or six. The narrative and the music and the imagery and the connection between the speaker’s mind and Degas’ mind, that is what I think is driving the book.

 

Q: How did you know you were done with the collection, and what was it like going through the contest system?

 

A: I knew it was finished because I continued writing these pieces and I started feeling like I was repeating myself, that I wasn’t discovering anything new, or whatever I had discovered I had said better somewhere else. That happened three or four times in a row, and I started to think, “Hmm, I think this is winding down, I think I have expressed myself as completely as I possibly can using this tactic.” And another practical signifier was that once I hit about 48 pages, which is usually the minimum page requirement for the contest system, I was like, well, if I start repeating myself or losing steam at this point, it’s okay to stop, because I have an entire manuscript. In other words, I would’ve been very sad if at the twenty-fifth poem, it had stopped working— which I would’ve accepted, but I was fortunate to have written enough to be manuscript length.  

And the contest system, it’s huge now. There are many reputable presses that have blind submissions, so one would submit their manuscript via Submittable, usually with a fee of $15-25, so it’s a little expensive, and the idea is that there’s a group of screeners who whittle the manuscripts down to 20-25 manuscripts which get sent to a final judge, usually somebody of note, and if your manuscript is selected you usually get a small monetary prize– something like $1000, and a publication contract. This is a really common way that poets get published nowadays, because poetry’s not a commodity, you don’t have an agent, no publisher is going to make a bunch of money off of your poetry collection. It’s a way for unknown writers to get published, to provide some income for the press, and to create a space for newer writers. Very rarely are poets discovered, or have the luxury of having an agent going around trying to get editors to notice your work. I published through the contest system for my first book, and for my second book, and now the press that published my second book has agreed to publish my third book. So, ostensibly, I have a press now, which is the dream of any writer, to have a press that supports you and wants to publish you. I think my beginning is a very common beginning for modern poets.

 

Q: Do you find yourself editing as you go or writing and then revising?

 

A: I’ve done both. With Self Portrait, I actually edited as I went along; I wanted each line to have a sense of completion before the next line, and so on. It was a tedious process. I remember on a good writing day, I would write three good sentences in a row. And that was very taxing. And then the next day, I would go back to the same piece and write three or four more sentences. Very rarely would it tumble down the page, would I complete a poem in one sitting. It was usually many, many sittings, one sentence at a time. But then, more recently, I’ve periodically written more quickly, understood that all of the raw material was there, and then went back and edited acutely. So I’ve done both, but with Self Portrait with Crayon, it was very tedious sentence by sentence, word by word process, and I just couldn’t write them any other way. But with more recent work, I could sort of streamline.

 

Q: Have other poets inspired your writing, and do they differ from the poets that you read?

 

A: I think the poets I read are the poets that inspire me. The initial poets that inspired me were Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I found them when I was very young, as many young people do, and they still continue to inspire me, specifically Plath; her work continues to burn through me. Later, when I was in college, I found Louise Glück, specifically the book The Wild Iris, and that book also is the gold standard for me, still. And then there’s another book that is less well known, by this woman named Killarney Clary, called Who Whispered Near Me. It’s a book of prose poems; I think I discovered it in graduate school. That book changed me and gave me a vision for something I wanted to do. I think Plath, Glück, and Clary are the three writers that continue to inspire me and give me the ambition to write something with that kind of heartbeat.

 

Q: Can you tell us about your mother and how she inspired this book?

 

A: Sure. So, my mom left me and my father sometime between when I was a year/year and a half old. Of course, I was very young, so I don’t remember any of this. As I was growing up, we never talked about her. I didn’t know where she was. There was no reason given, I just knew that she was gone. I knew she wasn’t dead, I knew she was alive, although nobody talked about it. I just grew up with my father. Then, just before I turned eight, she called, and a few weeks later, she showed up, and I met her. That’s the language I use, because I didn’t remember her. After that, my dad ended up having a nervous breakdown and going to a mental hospital so I ended up living with my mother for a few years. So I did get to know her in that way, but after that I ended up moving back in with my father, and she’s always lived up north, in Northern California, so… We’re not close. We have a relationship. We talk on the phone periodically. I think the question is always why? Why did she leave, why did she come back, what’s going on? I still don’t have answers to those questions. I still don’t fully understand.

 

Q: Has [your mother] read Self Portrait with Crayon?

 

A: She has! She wrote me a letter and said something to the effect of: Her approach to reading the book and her experience of reading the book allowed her to be proud (of me) rather than be ashamed (of herself). So, that was interesting, and I appreciated that. I did call her, when I found out the book was going to be published, and told her, “FYI, this is the anchoring subject matter of this book,” and that it wasn’t disparaging her. I didn’t write the book to disparage her, but rather I was writing from this enormous silence and mystery that has characterized my life. But, I did want to give her the dignity to know. And, I mean, it’s poetry, it’s not like we’re going on Oprah discussing this. So yeah, there is that connection. She has read what I have made. But there’s an endless mystery to my mother, and me writing that collection didn’t resolve it.

 

Q: When you finished  Self Portrait With Crayon, what was it like to start a new collection?

 

A: I don’t remember exactly. I remember being relieved when it was done. And I remember organizing it, which was an extraordinary task for me because I didn’t write them in a sort of sequence, so I had to truly think about how the poems were going to unfold, which was very challenging, so I remember a feeling of relief. My friend had committed suicide about six months before I finished Self Portrait with Crayon, so I already had this other terrible grief in my life, and I knew, because that’s how I process being alive, I knew I wanted to put pen to page in some way, responding to my friend’s death. So I didn’t really grieve Self Portrait, because I had this other grief. I think it took about a year to really find a way to write about my friend’s death, and that’s what became my second book. So that’s my memory of letting go of Self Portrait: I felt a sense of relief, and then tried to find a way back in.

 

Akimbo

Lily Sickles provides the reader a rush of images and movements centered around the word “Akimbo.”

You onomatopoeic multisyllabic beat

I wax akimbo out of my bathroom door

Post shower, clogged with pores and hair and

Pledge! Glasses a top my face (and wait)

To see them clearinga test of endurance

Some dilapidated trust,

Waiting for an occurrence

A feat of seeing! or, unexpectedly,

Akimbo? When one day I finally trip

On my

Extraterrestrial bathroom tryst of

Akimbo, pesky

Innumerable, my limbs that flail interminable

 

Lily Sickles is a junior at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. She is an editor at her school’s literary magazine, Guildscript, and attended the Between the Lines writing program at the University of Iowa.

 

Sisyphus and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

A short play exploring self awareness and creation in its many forms.

Play opens on Sisyphus standing at the bottom of a hill under azure sky, preparing to roll the stone up to the top of a rather large hill.

Stone (indignantly): Not this again.
Sisyphus: What?
Stone: You rolling me up to the top of this hill. I’m getting rather tired of it. Day in day out it’s all we do,you just roll me up to the top of this hill and I roll back down to the bottom again. And then we do that again. It’s a totally boring story.
Sisyphus: They enjoy it.
Stone: Who enjoys it?
Sisyphus: Them, the reader. The people who are reading this story right now.
Stone: How could they possibly enjoy it? It ends the same way every time. You roll me up to the top of this hill and then I fall down.
Sisyphus (thoughtfully): I think they see it as a sort of triumph of the human spirit sort of thing. I keep rolling you up the hill even though I know you’ll fall down when I get to the top.
Stone: Don’t they know you were forced to do this? You’re doing this as punishment. It’s not like you have another choice.
Sisyphus: Yeah, but despite being punished I still find happiness.
Stone: Who’s making you do this anyway?
Sisyphus: It’s the gods.
Stone: Who are the gods?
Sisyphus: They’re people who live up in the sky except they live forever and have control over humans and the earth.
Stone: I think I understand, but why do they make you roll me up this hill?
Sisyphus: I’m not exactly sure.
Stone (at this point generally confused): I don’t know who these gods are but they
have some explaining to do.

 

Silence echoes up the mountain, it is broken. Here it is, a giant bolt of lightning striking from the sky and appearing out of the darkness the Greek god Zeus. Enter Zeus.

 

Zeus (dressed in armor, bearded, and with a genuinely ironic smile on his face): Good morning Sisyphus. How are you doing today?
Sisyphus (the mere sight of Zeus serving as catalyst for all his fiery blood): Horrible, I’m feeling horrible.
Zeus: And why is that?
Sisyphus: Isn’t it obvious? I have to roll this rock– this large, heavy, fairly unsymmetric rock –up a hill, and I have to do this for eternity. And you’re the one that made me do this. You’re the reason I’m feeling horrible and you’re the reason I’ll be feeling horrible for the rest of time.
Zeus: Well how do you think I feel? I have to watch you.
Sisyphus: What?
Zeus: Yes, that’s my punishment. I am destined to sit at the bottom of this mountain and watch you roll this stone to the top of this hill and then have it roll back down. And isn’t that not much worse?Sisyphus: But you never do anything you just sit there and watch me. Why don’t you just let me free?Zeus: You think I’m pulling the strings up here? You think I get to make all the important decisions, snap my fingers and solve all your problems? I’ve got people I have to answer to.
Sisyphus: But you’re god.
Zeus: You have your gods and I have mine.
Sisyphus: So what you’re saying is there are other gods who control you and who mankind has no idea about.

Zeus: That’s right. I could pray to them if you’d like.

Silence.

Zeus: You know, if you’re really interested in complaining I’d talk to the author.
Sisyphus: What author?
Zeus: The author of the play we’re in right now. He’s the one who really has it out for you.


Enter the author, a telegenic young man with the look of brilliance about him. It should become clear 
to the reader right now that this author guy is an absolute genius worthy of the highest honor and praise.

 

Author: Oh, goodness. I’ve never been in one of my own stories before, what an absolute delight. Tell me did that description make me sound fat? It made me sound fat, didn’t it? I’ve ruined it. Let me try again, it’s alright. I’ll just jump out and jump right back in, it’ll only take a second.

 

The author disappears. Suddenly the author, a man extraordinary in both intellect and physique,reappears on the scene hoping that this time his entrance will better convey his general appearance.

 

Author: Hmmmm. Seems a little bit dull, doesn’t it? It lacks a theatrical touch, yes it does…this will not do as my introduction. Let me try, just one more time, I’m sure this one will be fantastic.

 

The author disappears to try his introduction yet again, a gag which must be appearing increasingly cliche to the reader, the author apologizes. He means well. With no further ado, the author appears once again, ready to finish this brilliant little play.

 

Author: That was the worst one yet. I simply must give it — interrupted.
Sisyphus (frustrated and in a loud voice): Stop it.Author: I’m terribly sorry, it’s just you only get one chance at a first impression.

Sisyphus: Exactly.

 

The characters feeling slightly awkward about the presence of the author are all silent.

 

Author: So why am I here again?
Sisyphus: I have it on good authority that you’re the one who’s making me roll this stone up the hill for eternity.
Author: Well, yes. I suppose.
Sisyphus (furious): What is the matter with you? Eternity? Are you mad?
Author: I thought the reader would be inspired by you, a sort of triumph of the human spirit sort of thing.
Stone: I told you.
Sisyphus: But eternity? Can’t I just die, can’t you just kill me? Why must I live for eternity?
Author: Live for eternity or die for eternity. There’s no way around it.
Sisyphus: Let me die for eternity.
Author (slowly working up a frustration himself): You know if you don’t stop complaining I’ll make you roll that stone up the hill for two eternities.
Sisyphus: That doesn’t even make sense.
Author: Doesn’t make what?
Sisyphus: That doesn’t make-
Author: Oh, sense. That makes sense.
Sisyphus: That makes what?
Author: Sense.
Sisyphus: Sense?

Author: It’s a common word. You should get out more.

 

Silence. Again.

 

Sisyphus: I still don’t understand why you need to make me continue rolling a stone up a hill. Are you a sadist or something?
Author: I’m not a sadist, I’m just an author. Answer not satisfying Sisyphus, the author restarts.You think it’s up to me? Why, I’ve got people I need to impress, people I need to please with this story.I need to impress committees, I need to get into a college with this for god’s sake. If I let you off, with say, 100 years of rolling a stone up a hill, then people are going to be absolutely furious. They’re going to whine about how it’s unrealistic, about how they feel cheated and then all that hate is going to comedown on me. There are going to be organized protesters and nasty letters and it’s just not something I’m prepared to deal with. It’s much better for you to suffer your entirely fictional life for me so that I can happily live mine.
Sisyphus: So, in other words, you have your gods too?

Author: Hundreds.

 

The characters at this point all stop and share a very brief moment. Notice how I said that the characters all stop and not the people all stop. That’s because, as the reader has undoubtedly forgotten by this point, the characters are not real people and are merely a projection of the author’s imagination. These characters, like you and me and all real people, could be at any moment pummeled, hanged, squashed, shot, crucified, buried, or otherwise knocked out of life.

 

Sisyphus: You and I, we are not so different.
Author: No, in fact we are exactly the same.
Sisyphus: Indeed, could you not, for my (or rather your) sake create another Sisyphus to roll the stone up the hill in my place.
Author: Sorry, but no. There would be little to no precedent for that. It would shock people.
Sisyphus: Bah. Aren’t you good for anything?
Author: Am I?
Sisyphus: Are you?
Author: Who, me?
Sisyphus: I don’t know I asked you.
Author: Asked me what?
Sisyphus: I asked, are you?
Author: Am I what?
Sisyphus: I don’t know.
Zeus: Who?
Author: You know Sisyphus, sometimes I feel we struggle to communicate.

Sisyphus: What?

 

At this point a silence descends over our mighty cast of characters and they reach what seems to be a profound and lasting understanding.

Sisyphus (breaking the quite lengthy silence)So now what?

 

Author: Back to you rolling that stone up the hill for the rest of time, that’s what this is all about after all.
Stone: I thought it was more about you writing a play so that you could gain all this respect and admiration. You probably think you’re pretty clever referencing yourself all the time, you probably think this is how you’re going to get your respect and admiration. You probably think that if you keep doing this the audience is going to view the author as an actual character and forget who you are. You’re not fooling me author, you’re in control of everything here. Everybody listen the author is a fake character who should not be trusted.
Author: No, I’m not. I’m a real character. Look at me I’m in the play.Stone: Only because you wrote yourself into the play.
Author: I’ll write you out of the play if you keep mouthing off to me, I am your author for Zeus’ sake. I control you at this very moment.
Stone: Screw you. I’ll talk about whatever I want.

Author: That’s it, you’re out.

 

With a snap of his fingers and the explosion of some yellow and decidedly metaphysical smoke, the stone ceases to exist.

 

Sisyphus (alarmed)What was that all about?
Author: What?
Sisyphus: You just made him disappear.
Author: I could make all of you disappear, I’m the author.
Zeus (a cool annoyance playing upon his face): This play makes no sense at all, you should stick to whatever else you’re good at and leave us alone.
Author: I’m not good at anything else.
Stone: You’re not particularly good at this either.

Author: How’d you get back in here?

 

With another finger snap the stone is once again gone.

Author (
frustrated at the defiance of his characters, viewing this incident as a rebellion against a
Zeus: I agree with Sisyphus, by making your work more plot based you could appeal to a much larger, much less Existentialist population.
Sisyphus (after a short pause, now scratching his chin): Also it seems you have a habit repeating the same things over and over again. For example, you have already used the word ‘clever’ six times, in this short play. Also you’re often quite redundant.
Zeus: A pattern of tautology as well if I’m not mistaken.
Sisyphus: Indeed.
Author: Stop saying that. Stop criticizing me.
Sisyphus: But you’re the author, you’re making us say these things.
Author: That is true, my self-deprecating sense of humor has always been a large flaw of mine. I’d say my self-deprecation is the main reason why I have not and never will amount to anything and the reason why I feel I need to assert absolute and total control over fictional characters.
Sisyphus: Wait, so let me get this straight, you have complete control over us?
Author: That’s right.
Sisyphus: You can make us do whatever you want?
Author: Bingo.
Sisyphus: So I don’t really have any free will?
Author: I made you say that. I’m picking whatever you say, next you’ll complain about how this is all horribly unfair.
Sisyphus: This is all horribly unfair.
Author: God, Sisyphus you complain a lot. I should have chosen a more likable main character, this little story would sell a lot better.
Sisyphus: You would complain too if you had to roll a stone up a hill for eternity and then to add insult to injury a dumb little author appeared every once in awhile to make things awful for you. Can you imagine how hard it is for me?
Author: Nobody cares about your little sob story.
Sisyphus: Are you kidding me? I have to roll this stone up for a hill for eternity.
Author: Yeah, we get it. You’ve already complained about this stone thing.
Sisyphus: For eternity, do you have any idea how long that is going to take? By the time I’m finished I’m gonna be all old and gray and decrepit. Pauses. How long is eternity anyway?
Author: Well, let me think…….(mumbles under his breath, does the math in his head) divide by three, carry the one…..
Zeus: It is quite simple to prove that not all infinities are of equal size. Cantorian diagonalization can be used to prove that since infinities lack bijection-
Author (still mumbling, doing math in his enormous head): Multiply by the square root of 2 …..add two pi over five….
Zeus (continuing on): — and some sets can naturally be mapped onto larger sets (ie the set of square numbers onto the set of positive integers). Therefore it is impossible to say how large your infinity is.
Author: 127 years. Infinity is equal to 127 years. I have proved it.
Sisyphus: Well that’s not so bad. I feel I have an infinity or two yet in these limbs.
Author: Good thing, you never can know how many infinities I’ll make you work through.
Sisyphus: I’d rather live through an infinity of infinities than spend another second with you.
Author: You know you’re really starting to piss me off.
Sisyphus: What are you going to do write me out of the story? The story doesn’t make any sense without me.

Author: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

 

The author, a man of infinite wit and perfect judgement, writes out Sisyphus. Sisyphus has ceased to exist.

 

Author: Jesus Christ, I work every goddamn day writing these tiny little characters. I give them their own little minds and their own little thoughts and what do they do? They turn on me. The little bastards. Why did I choose to write when I could have gone and become a policeman or a soldier or some other easy job?
Zeus: So I guess it’s just you and me.

Author: Screw you.

 

The author begins to write out the character Zeus when he is interrupted-

 

Author’s conscience: Are you sure this is wise? If you write out Zeus it will just be you alone in this story and that’s not particularly interesting, is it?

Author: Screw you too.

 

Author proceeds to write out both Zeus and his own conscience. There is a profound emptiness, a silence, as the author realizes that he is all alone in this universe and that without the illusions created by his own mind that he is truly a pirate in a sea of cosmic emptiness.

 

Author (lonely, smiling): So much for pathos.

 

So much for pathos.

 

Ted Baas is a student at Holland Christian High School. His interests include reading and writing.

Christopher DeWan: The American Dream and the Future of Television.

Fellow student Kalista Puhnaty and I sat down with Christopher DeWan to talk life, writing, his career, and his new book of short stories, Hoopty Time Machines.

Christopher DeWan is author of HOOPTY TIME MACHINES: fairy tales for grown ups, a collection of domestic fabulism from Atticus Books. He has published more than fifty stories in journals including Bodega, Gravel, Hobart, Passages North, and wigleaf, and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. In 2017, he was named as one of the ISA’s “Top 25” screenwriters and recipient of a fellowship from the Middlebury Script Lab. 

 

Chris started with the history of his relationship to literature, and how it grew into his life as a writer.

 

My mom was an English teacher and when she wanted to celebrate something, she would take us to a bookstore as a special treat. At the end of the school year, we would celebrate by binge-buying a bunch of books.

In terms of a “writing career” I think of that term as an oxymoron. Leaving school environments and going into adult environments and figuring out what role I wanted writing to play in my life changed a lot. I worked for ad agencies for a while, then I was a blogger. I had a decently well known blog. Writing came up in a lot of different ways so that even when I wasn’t writing, I thought of myself as a writer. I worked in theater for a long time, partly as a playwright but I ran a couple theaters for a couple of years. It wasn’t always writing, but it was always stories.

 

His debut collection of these stories, Hoopty Time Machines, opens with an epigraph: “In olden times, when wishing still helped…” It’s a pregnant introduction; the ellipses are ominous, suggesting that what’s to come is a world where the hopefulness of the old world still holds some magical play. But these tales aren’t sweetly magical or thinly veiled moral lessons. Goldilocks navigates the modern dating world while juggling jobs, a husband watches his wife have an affair with Poseidon after they meet on a kayaking trip, the last man on Earth blogs about solitude. What follows the epigraph is over forty stories, or “fairy tales for grown ups,” as the subtitle calls them.

 

The stories that repeat in our daily lives become personal mythologies. DeWan identifies these myths and presents them to us, sometimes as revitalized classics; those legends and fairy tales we’ve heard since children.

 

The stories in [Hoopty Time Machines], I wrote over the span of four or five years, and I wrote other stories that weren’t a part of that book. But for the book I wanted stories that were already familiar to us, whether it was a myth or a fairy tale, but something we all knew so we could look for other ways to see it, hold it up, and show something a little different.

In that book, a lot of stories go back to Greek mythology. The label “fairy tale” came later when I was talking to the editor of the book. I was like, Oh yea haha these are like fairy tales for grown ups, and he was like, I can market that! We’ll make millions!

A lot of what glued those stories together was that it had a lot to do with the hopes and aspirations we have. It was a lot of American dreamy fairy tales, the fact that we all buy into the idea that our futures will be a certain way, and then we go down certain paths looking for those things, and that might or might not come true, but it’s never what we expected it would be. And ultimately that was the fairy tale that was at the heart of a lot of those stories that glued them all together.

The reason the book starts with a story that explicitly calls out the American dream, and the last story does the same thing, is because I wanted to make sure people felt that vibe even after we talked about Greek mythology and Rapunzel and Goldilocks, that it was still couched in the aspirations we all have to live happily ever after, and how hard that is in real life, how irreconcilable that is with real life.

 

The first story in the book captures this irreconcilable disjunction between the fairy tale world we pursue and its evil twin, reality. The piece is titled “Conestoga Wagon,” and it goes like this: “When he lost his job at Best Buy, Dad packed all of our things into a Conestoga wagon and we crossed the border into Canada, in search of the American Dream.”

 

“Conestoga Wagon,” like its counterparts in the collection, sits at the junction between our modern reality (the loss of a retail job), and the fairytale world where our hopes and dreams originate (traveling by mystical Conestoga wagon). It ends critical of the American dream, our great, looming fairytale, and the fact that it can’t be found here, but in another country altogether.

 

DeWan presents a series of easily digestible ideas, but they left me satisfied as I turned the page. A previous story would often hit me while I was in the middle of reading the next. And this is no mistake or distraction. The stories build on each other, expanding on a world where “wishing still helped,” even when it seems to be no help at all. There are many hapless people struggling to deal with a world where logic and reason is replaced by wonder.

 

There was a point two thirds through writing the story that I became aware of what kept coming up. And then I realized, oh that’s what I’m writing about, and I could do it more consciously instead of accidentally. With the stories in the book in particular, some of them are so short. They were just accidents. I’m always writing and there would just be some weird idea that got stuck in my head and I decided to write about that for twenty minutes. So they didn’t start with a lot of intention, they just bubbled up out of an image that I couldn’t quite puzzle out. Later I figured out, oh, this image added up to this story, and this added up to this story, and this added up to this and so on. Once I realized that, I decided that’s what the book will be.

I think naturally, there’s the stuff you’re interested in and you can’t get away from, so if you put enough words on paper, those will be the words that keep repeating, the stuff you’re already obsessed with.

And it doesn’t mean we can’t write other things too, and it doesn’t mean we can’t do it with more intention. Like some of those stories came up by accident, but some of them I steered. But I do think that the more layers we peel off, and the more honest we can be with ourselves, the more we keep going back to those same themes, those things we really, really, really care about, whether we know it or not.

 

Hoopty Time Machines offers up stories with various depths. Many stories are perfectly short to meet the required idea within. “Sacramento,” for example:

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into some other one.”

Even though it’s a one liner, “Sacramento,” feels like a complete story. Others are one paragraph, or just a page.

 

In the stories in this book, sometimes I wanted it to just be enough to evoke a question. In some cases the question was more interesting than the answers to the question. With “Sacramento,” I wanted to think about all the other possible alternatives to this one story that we all know somewhat well, this cultural troupe. All of a sudden I wanted to imagine all of the things that didn’t happen.

The first story in the book, [“Conestoga Wagon”] the one I mentioned earlier, is just a sentence about this family who goes to Canada looking for the American dream. I could’ve written, and then they settle in Canada and become micro brewers and learn hockey, or whatever. But for me it was about invoking the possibility and putting a little crack in the myth of the American dream. That was all I wanted and then it was time to get out.

The longer stories were more character based. A character intrigued me more and had more going on so I couldn’t really dismiss them with a couple funny lines, I had to live with them a little longer and try to recon with their complexities a little more.

 

DeWan does well to trust the power in the economy of his words. The length of these stories perfectly match their reach. But even the shortest stories tell us as much about their close little worlds as ten pagers, like “Rapunzel’s Tangles.”  I was hard pressed to find a superfluous word or detail that detracted from the punch of a story.

 

Some of the stories in the book are so short, shorter than people are used to or might expect, and easy for people to dismiss. Like, how much substance can there be?

There’s this Argentine writer named Augusto Monterroso, and he wrote this story I read many years ago. I think the whole story went like this: “When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” And that’s the whole story.

Again, all the questions of that are so much more interesting. Why was the dinosaur there? How did the dinosaur get there? What happened the night before? Right? It’s just this weird thing that cracks my brain for a second.

Ever since I read that story I wanted to write those little zen koan of stories that make people see things a little differently, at least for a minute.

There’s a story in this book where the first draft was like a thousand words long, and I started cutting some things that were getting in the way of the real essence of it. And I was cutting and cutting and cutting and I got it down to eighty three words. At a thousand words it can go either direction, it can either be a clever thing that can help you see things in a new way and then it’s done, or it can be about real people, and reveal things about people that are complex, that could never be done in just a thousand words.

It feels like you’re trying to crack a gemstone. You have this raw thing and you’re trying to chisel away the parts to make it perfect as much as you can. And that’s different than a bigger story. A bigger story has to be messier. The rewards in that story come from some of the mess. I think in an eighty three word story, if there’s mess in there then there’s an impurity in the gemstone.

 

Chris is well versed in these “bigger stories.” His website boasts a series of screenplays. He also teaches a weekly TV writing course at Idyllwild Arts Academy.

 

I moved back to LA in 2010. I’d been in New York for a bunch of years doing this blog and writing fiction, but by then all of my playwriting friends from when I was in theatre had moved back to LA and were doing TV. So I got back and they were like, Why aren’t you doing TV? And they were getting nicer and nicer houses so I was like, Why aren’t I doing TV?

I’ve been working in and around Hollywood since then. I didn’t really start on TV writing until 2012. I do think because of that whole prior decade where I was working in theater, TV feels more continuous to me.

The there was this giant migration of theatre people to TV. There are so many TV writers now who are just TV writers that if you just walk in the door and you’re like Hi, I write fiction, they’re like Have a seat, have a drink, make yourself comfortable. They’re fascinated just by the fact that you’re a little different. That absolutely happened to playwrights, they got taken way more seriously for having studied craft instead of just going to film school.

What was shiny and new and refreshing to all the bored Hollywood executives were these new writers who were suddenly new to television and trying to bring new things. Particularly at this time where TV itself is getting weird and breaking all its rules. The whole medium has turned itself out in the past decade, and in the past five years, and in the past two years, and in the past six months, with not even the stuff we think of as TV but with web series and shorter form things, there are so many different ways people are trying to tell stories right now.

I’m working on a virtual reality project, and no one knows how this works, no one has had one that actually works yet. There are a couple experiments that are kind of interesting but kinda don’t work. But no one knows the story that you can tell in virtual reality that doesn’t work as a gimmick but works as a story.

As the executives realized the medium was changing, they got really curious to get people who were interested in a variety of storytelling platforms.

TV stories are at the other polar extreme of those really short short stories that I was talking about. Those really short short stories can get by on being clever because once you have the idea it’s over. A TV story is never over, so clever isn’t enough. Clever is enough to get people laughing. The only thing that makes a TV story work is that I have to care about the people, and they have to be going on this journey that I can invest in. It doesn’t mean I have to like them, it doesn’t mean they have to be doing things I want to do, but if I can’t find a reason to care about them and all of their ongoing heartbreaks, disappointments and struggles.

Striving is a key ingredient in a TV show, the characters don’t have what they want, so they’re striving to get something, and by the end of the episode they won’t get it, or they’ll get it and it won’t satisfy the thing they wanted. And then they keep striving. If they were ever to quit striving, the show would be over. Whatever human engine drives them is really compelling, to look at people that deeply, and have this longform opportunity to understand how people work when they’re colliding with other people. Particularly when they’re colliding with the same people every week, and their relationships get deeper and stranger and more like our relationships.

The first show that made me realize this was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the twentieth anniversary of Buffy today, but I still love it because it does all those things. It dressed itself up as this light, silly, clever show. This light gemstone of a show — this girl’s going to go kill vampires, how cute and clever — and then it totally tricked me into loving those characters, and crying over them, and wanting what they wanted. When I watched the ad, I thought that show was going to be fun. Instead, I wound up weeping week after week after week, and having fun. But if I hadn’t cared about them, I wouldn’t have watched it for seven consecutive years.

 

Chris just touched on this word “tricked.” I was wondering how that played a role in his story telling. How does this affect a screenwriter’s relationship with the audience?

 

You have a relationship with the audience where you’re promising certain things, and if you ever don’t deliver on that promise, they’ll stop watching. So you can’t trick them at that level. You can’t promise them a show about a cute cheerleader who will kill vampires and it will be fun and funny all the time, and then give them something different and expect them to keep watching. So you trick them at that level. I think you trick them at the level of a constant sleight of hand where the character is almost going to get what they want, or they do get that thing, and the trick is that only once they arrive did they learn that the thing they needed to learn wouldn’t help them. That the thing they thought they wanted wasn’t what was missing. And it keeps the story going.

The trick is all the tricks that keep a story going. How can you be more clever, or more interesting, or more revealing, or more honest?

Another show I really admire is Six Feet Under. It’s not really plot driven at all, it’s just this family and they’re stuck together, but the way that story keeps going is they just keep peeling off more and more layers of their relationship. Or we see more and more layers of those relationships. The only trick there is that they’re going to keep surprising us just when we think we know them. They’re going to do something that’s not what I expected and yet more right for them than anything I ever would’ve expected. When a show works, I feel it doing that to me: I never saw that coming, but that’s the only thing that could have happened.

Shameless does that a lot. It just goes deeper and deeper and deeper into those people, and we know all the ways they’re going to disappoint us, and yet they manage to disappoint us in ways that are even more disappointing than I ever expected. And then I get my hopes up for them all over again the next time.

 

The differences between prose and TV writing feel obvious to the audience, but as a writer of both, Chris spoke on these differences between the final products and the writing processes themselves.

 

There are a lot of ways where the differences are obvious, but there are other ways where they’re not as different as we think. Either way we’re telling a story. A lot of times I’ll start something, and at the beginning I won’t know if I want to write it as prose, or if I want to write it as a script. It will take a while to feel out the story to know what kind of story it is. The more internal the story is, the more likely it is to be prose. If what I care about is about what’s going on inside your head, then that’s hard to put into a script, but not impossible. But if it’s more about what happens between us, that might work better as a script.

We’re all so saturated in video stories, that we all think pretty cinematically anyway. A lot of fiction that you read might be easy to shoot. Not all fiction, there’s fiction that people create that can only be fiction. You can’t shoot the inside of that person’s head.

TV has forced fiction to get weirder too, more innovative. But there are plenty of people who are not writing fiction like that. Plenty of people are writing fiction that’s more like a movie. There’s obviously a ton of space for them in the marketplace.

For me, if it starts with an image I’ll often scratch at the image in prose until I understand what the image is. Sometimes the image grows into something that will cross paths with the character, and maybe the character then takes the baton and runs with the story from there. At that point, maybe it becomes a script instead. But if it stays with the image, and it doesn’t get the baton passed to the character, it stays in prose. If the thing starts with the character from the outset, if the image that I’m intrigued with is the character, I’ll almost always start that as a script.

There are certain people who only think of themselves as screenwriters so they don’t have to even decide, like people who only think of themselves as prose writers. But for people who do both, every one probably has a different process. I don’t know how other people decide to open up Final Draft, or keep it in Word, at what point they’re like, this isn’t gonna work as a story.

All this writing that we do is trial and error experiments. We try it and see if it works, and if it doesn’t work but we still like the story, we try it in another way. Prose vs. script is another set of choices we can make to decide if the story lives better like this or like that.

 

Chris went on to share the methods he uses to push his writing process forward.

 

I wish I had easy, efficient tricks. A lot of my teaching, I do through writing prompts. I’ll set someone up with a prompt and tell them to write for fifteen minutes. The trick in that case is then the writer doesn’t have to worry about deciding anything. The pressure of deciding what to write gets taken away from you, so you don’t have to do both jobs. You don’t have to be the writer and the teacher if someone else is saying do this. That’s a harder process to do for ourselves. If I give myself a writing prompt, if I get bored, then thirty seconds in I call bullshit on it. I’m like, I gave myself that prompt, I don’t have to do it, there’s no teacher here, so I won’t do it. That means the tricks I use when I’m trying to help other people write aren’t the tricks I use when I’m trying to write.

The tricks I use for myself are grossly inefficient. I just write everyday. I write lots and lots and lots of words. But the words will ramble uselessly if I don’t frame it as trying to solve problems. That helps. The theater background helped me figure that out. Improv games in theater are usually setting a couple actors on stage and asking them to solve this problem. And all of a sudden you have a scene because two people are working on something. If I’m not trying to solve a problem, then I’m usually just journaling and that’s not gonna help me find my story. If I actually flip the switch and say, What problem am I trying to solve, then all of a sudden the work gets a lot more focused.

But it doesn’t keep me from rambling in my journal too, because sometimes I need to filter out the noise. When I’m not trying to solve a problem and I’m just throwing words at the page, that’s just like taking my pulse. I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on in the back of my head.

I vacillate between those. Sometimes I just want to know what’s going on in the back of my head because that’s where I might find the next story. Sometimes I want to take that thing I found and try to hammer it into a story, and that’s when it gets into problem solving.

 

Kalista Puhnaty and Campbell Dixon 

Listen, when I say

Chester Wilson writes a series of unusual images that captivate the reader.

Brush your fingers. Lie with squinted eyes.
Find a garden overflowing white flowers. Smell the bleach,
blink only twice. Knock over only two.
in threes. Tie knots. Propose on broken knees. Lock it
in a tree, molded branches. Stay delicately, charm thorny legs.
Tell your fingers secrets. Double check around the curved
corner. Be first to count. Don’t be afraid to find spades. Swing zippers.
Play gratis. Bake tiny cakes. Bring a small cloth, and one
for the cats. Allow cursive quick work. Be great
Crinkle string. Try to breath over mountains. Try sunsets beneath blankets.
Check the stars that sag. Write check, complete.
And make room for the footsteps that will join you tonight
on the eve of rebellion
 
Chester Wilson III is junior at Chicago High School For The Arts in Chicago, and a member of the school’s first conservatory class of creative writers. His favorite form of writing is prose, but he also loves writing plays and short stories. He also loves working in his schools literary magazine. When he’s not writing, he loves swaddling himself in a fluffy blanket and reading science fiction.
 
Visual art by Adrian Hernandez 

Listen to the Book

Emily Clarke discusses young adult literature with Eliot Treichel, focusing on his recently published YA novel A Series of Small Maneuvers.

Eliot Treichel is the author of the YA novel A Series of Small Maneuvers and the story collection Close Is Fine, which received the Wisconsin Library Association Literary Award. His writing and photography have appeared in a variety of publications, including Canoe & Kayak, BULL, Narrative, Beloit Fiction Journal, CutBank, and Passages North. He’s been awarded a Fishtrap Writing Fellowship, as well as two residency fellowships at PLAYA. He thinks riding bikes uphill is fun, sandwiches are better with potato chips, and that no one should go to bed without a cookie. His only dance move is the moonwalk. He cannot parallel park. Originally from Northern Wisconsin, he now lives in Oregon.

 

Q: You’ve lived in Oregon for the past several years. Was there anything that initially drew you there?

A: From Wisconsin, I ended up in Oregon after going to college in Arizona and living there for a while. Whitewater kayaking has been a pretty big part of my life since about the age of eighteen, I was working as a whitewater kayaker when I was nineteen. The reason I sort of ended up in Oregon is because there are a lot of really great rivers there for kayaking and you can paddle year round. I was also considering going to graduate school at the University of Oregon to get my MFA in fiction, moved to Eugene, applied to the program there but didn’t get in.

 

Q: Why did you start writing YA literature?

A: So I was bringing home all of these young adult novels for my daughter and most of them had this recurring narrative where it was boy saves girl and I just got really sick of that so I wanted to write a story where a girl saves herself, but that probably came second. I was leading a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon on this four day trip; we hiked four miles to get into camp and another couple miles to get our water. It was physically demanding for our whole group of college students and even me as the leader. I have a little bit of a fear of heights and on this trail there are some spots where you look off the edge and I would get vertigo. On the third day, we were hiking down to refill our water and ran into this family: mom, dad, and two little girls, six and ten. The youngest one was crying and had this little dirty stuffed animal, and something about that image got stuck in my craw. I started thinking a lot about, you know, what if these kids were on their own—how would they get out of it? One part of me thought these parents were amazing and cool for taking these kids out on this wilderness experience, and the other part thought oh my god, these parents are cruel. I was conflicted. That’s when I first started writing the book. I knew I wanted to have a girl in the forest and I wanted to kill the father off immediately and then make the girl get out of the situation right away. A trope of YA is dead parents. One of the other things was that there was a news story where the senator of Oregon’s kid was on a field trip for school or the Boy Scouts and he was climbing up on a log, and fell and died. I was really sort of intrigued by this idea of how quickly your life can change, so maybe that’s why I killed off the dad so quickly.

 

Q: What was your writing process like?

A: For this particular book (A Series of Small Maneuvers), it started off as a book for National Novel Writing Month. I had just done the backpacking trip. It was the beginning of November. I had been working on my short story collection for a while—ten years or something like that, so it totally made sense to try and write a novel in a month. I got like 10,000 words, put it aside, and finished my short story collection. I needed to keep working on something so I brought the novel back, wrote about a draft, and I was lucky enough to get a residency in Kalama which is, like, remote, eastern Oregon. So I had a cabin for a month, no cell phone reception really, no Internet connection—it’s out in the Oregon desert. That’s where I wrote the first real draft of the book, and partly that was to mirror Emma’s experience of being out there and away from home. And I brought drafts home, just kept revising and revising, a couple times I would rent a house on the Oregon coast and write from day to night. It was pretty cool—it can make you a little bit nutty, but my process usually is just moving through a series of drafts and trying to make them better and better. Both books deal with rivers in certain ways. In A Series of Small Maneuvers it’s pretty obvious. In the short story collection it’s set in northern Wisconsin and it’s not really a story cycle because there are different characters in each story, though there are some things that connect them all. There’s a river that’s in every story and there’s a tavern that’s sort of in every story. Rivers and place are always big themes.  My first book is about Wisconsin, where I lived. The second book is about the desert Southwest where I lived. The next book is going to be about Oregon, where I’m living now. So I need to move soon.

 

Q: Did you grow up around a lot of rivers?

A: Yeah, there was a river right at the end of my street.  I would go there and tromp through the woods or go fishing.

 

Q: Is the relationship that Emma, the main character of A Series of Small Maneuvers, has with her father based off any of your relationships, or any relationships that you observed?

A: It’s partly based on the relationship my daughter and I share, and off my dad’s and my relationship, or off my friend’s and their parents, and part of it is made up. There’s this idea of loops that complicate and I think it is a much more interesting story if we see this dad who is on the one hand really wonderful, and on the other hand not that great. That feels authentic to me. I love my own dad and he is wonderful in many ways, but then in other ways he is a total asshole. I didn’t realize this until I became a parent, but parenting is really hard.

 

Q: What made you want to stagger the chronology in A Series of Small Maneuvers?

A: There are two ways to start a story. One is that we start at the beginning of the story and work towards the dead body. The other is start with the dead body and work towards figuring out what happened. It’s not really a mystery if the dead body comes up at the end, but every mystery starts out with the dead body. I wanted to play around with that structure so I put the dead body up front. Part of young adult fiction is that you have to keep the reader turning the pages. I also wanted to play with narrative structure in some ways. I think you have more leadway in a novel to play around with time and switching points of view. It’s good to have a concept but it’s really important to be willing to let that concept go at some point and realize that the book wants to be its own thing. Make sure you listen to the book.

 

Q: Did you have any hesitation about writing the book from the point of view of a teenage girl?

A: Part of my decision was that my short story collection is full of guy stories.” Every story is about a dude who has made terrible decisions and is trying to make up for them in some way. I wanted to move away from that for my next book. There were concerns about not coming off as some guy writing a story about who a girl should be. I wanted to make sure it was authentic, and I struggled with that at times, but it didn’t feel weird. The very first story I ever wrote was from the point of view of a girl. I think the teenage aspect was more challenging than boy versus girl.

 

Q: Were you ever considering that more teenage girls read YA novels than boys as a factor in the narrator you chose?

A: Some studies have said that girls will read stories about girls or boys, and boys will usually only read stories about boys. That’s part of the reason I wanted to play with the adventure trope. Gary Paulsen’s books got me into reading so I wanted to write a book that would reach who I was as a young reader, but was a girl story.

 

Q: What advice would you give to young writers?

A: No one is born a writer, or born not a writer.  Anyone can do it—it’s just a matter of practicing. For whatever reason you want to write, whether it’s personal or you want it to be published, it doesn’t matter because being a writer is a wonderful thing. Keep writing and ignore your critics. A lot of people will tell you, “You can’t do this,” but if it’s what you want to do, keep fighting and keep writing. Something that was really helpful to me was being a reader on a literary journal, reading the slush pile submissions. You end up reading people who are at your level. Published books have no mistakes; they’ve been edited out, but when you read manuscripts for a literary journal, you will learn to see the mistakes in their work as an editor and then you can see the same mistakes in your own writing.

Two Poems by Elena Rielinger

Elena Rielinger analyzes her relationship with apples and examines the personality of a coffee drink.

Apples

Someday I hope to make

enough money

so I can afford

pretentiously over-priced organic produce

though I’m not entirely sure

if there’s a palpable difference

between the glossy gleam of an apple’s

red rose-threaded skin

entirely free from insecticides

and that of the deceiving fruit which

destroyed the girl with ebony hair

and complexion akin to snow.

I’ve consumed plenty of

artificial flavors, preservatives, GMOs,

which in retrospect seems to detract

from my health, as if combined it could create

a sort of vulgar sodium-based solution

supersaturated into a thick, pussy liquid.

In spite of this I am alive

…and yet again I am purchasing apples…

I don’t know if my choice of produce has a point,

but until I do I remain satisfied with my blunt decisions.

 

Hello, Unjustifiable Feelings of Trepidation, Fear, and Guilt.

You linger in my doorway

like unwept tears

in sculpted wax eyes,

and you always arrive at the most

inopportune times.

Like when I’m trying to scan these apples

at the self-serve checkout

and the mechanical voice shrieks:

“Please wait

Help is on the way”

to both myself and the growing line.

Suddenly I’m as exposed as poor Eve

misinformed by the serpent,

believing something so obviously deceiving

and taking the fatal bite into the forbidden fruit,

never even having heard of the term “All natural!”

 

Screw buying organic fruit.

I’ll plant my own tree.

 

Carelessness and Coffee Cups

At the corner of a street,

a cup of coffee sat beside

a bench at the bus stop

disposable cup

half empty

abandoned.

A pair of black, plastic framed glasses,

/glasses, not two lenses/

were swiped off the bridge of a man’s nose

and held in his hand as he quietly mourned

his forgotten caffeine in his rush

onto the early arriving bus.

In spite of its owner’s regret,

the lukewarm drink still sat, complemented by cream,

sweet cream, maybe half-and-half, or

frothy milk with the texture of clouds,

an ethereal match for the nutty bitterness

of the dark roasted coffee beans because

opposites attract and attach

and now it’s no longer black coffee

and the purest of white milk,

but a latte, cappuccino macchiato, or

some other exotic sounding name.

A couple came to the corner

/couple, not two individual persons/

and in their hurry to catch the next bus,

knocked over the cup of coffee beside

the bench at the bus stop

disposable cup

empty

abandoned.

The beverage gravitates to the cracks in the pavement,

blends with the mud in the grass.

It’s no longer coffee with cream,

but a mess to be washed away

by the oncoming storm.

 

Elena Rielinger is currently a senior attending North Royalton High School near Cleveland, Ohio. Her poem “when a certain song plays” has been published in The Noisy Island and her poem “For Orlando: 6-12-16” is forthcoming in Sprout Magazine.

Visual Art by Ben Cruz

Two Poems by Amelia Van Donsel

Van Donsel’s pieces explores grand American imagery and poetry itself.

Eyes Adjusting to Dark
 
I suppose any work that is done is yet to resurface.
It’ll bubble up,
I think,
As though it is made of
Cloudy little spaces.
Rise
A little sloppy, even.
The busking bodies’d stretch, next
Tucking into the cots of sidewalk,
Hunkering down for that wind that could ruffle ships.
But brave swallows, swallows
Tell all with such a temper!
Don a pace
Of sky and skin and hungry mouth.
The light crescents which dote on this day
Are bilious, all things considered.
To keep the man who grew me
Is to be told that heaven really is just bathtubs of fog.
Clawfoot or drop-in?
Yet the crested firmament has begun
Greasing under my fingertips 
Please don’t touch 
Touch
Don’t 
Don’t touch please
Please.
An ignorant abstention.
 
Calliope
I.
Calliope tells me
That light holds
Too much mercy.
She has not seen the
Barefoot and blessed.
It’s a miracle minus the blood.
I implore her to watch
The silk gowns fill new torsos with light
Pressed all the way through.
The balding monks murmur
Of the interstitial planes of consciousness
Between the hairs of spider legs.
The young are blue-lipped in the luminous waters
That lift skirts of pallid light.
Their skin must smell like petrichor, I think,
O, Christ that cinnamon perfection.
In the basement I am told
I must read them stories
That have teeth big enough to gnaw on God,
About how scenery will be seen,
How fish will be fished,
How gardens will be gardened.
All will be satisfied.
I dropped a seed into pot a week ago.
It didn’t spring yesterday.
Instead I’ll probably find a baby
Growing in between the sidewalk cracks 
The place where bodies crush bone to skin.
Blueberries molding
Under my mother’s refrigerator.
The fields the farmers used to walk
Their market horses through
Weren’t mowed yesterday.
For a moment the sun would blind them
As they crossed that distant yellow haze,
That dust suspended in gas.
They could watch the grass crystalize as
The sun tried to kill the moon.
I long to see that ratty hair thick with sun,
Clouds on backs,
Boots sloshing with gold.
Now their unfinished chapels
Entomb the wants of things
That were once alive.
I can’t tell the difference
Between cold tiles and cold foreheads.
Amidst crooked night voices,
Junk food television,
And picture tube slumbers
I dreamt of us cooking shrimp tempura
As we argued over something I couldn’t see.
You swelled and reddened,
Tongs raking apart the hot pink commas
Until you hauled the wok over your head
Like Goliath and threatened
To pour it down your body.
My knees, my face melted into the floor.
Steaming oil cascaded down my neck,
Bubbling summer exploring my back,
Crawling in a searing, gelatinous wake.
I feel no pain.
Your kitchen body waits there
Until the wallpaper turns to sun,
Then I wake.
The feeling of the empty house
When you return to retrieve something.
Was it waiting for you with bated breath?
Did it miss you?
Calliope, I have met the American people They’re pretty standoffish.
I’ve learned that my handshake
Will never be strong enough
And that there is too much sky 
The world must end somewhere.
The GPS god on my dashboard
Tells me to run with highway packs of beasts
That roam and scavenge as one great machine,
Raking their claws through the earth.
Moon hammers off the hood,
Shoots diamonds into my eyes,
Traps me in a lightbulb of rumpled red leather.
Yellow foam froths at the mouth
Of the upholstery’s wound.
From behind, a thousand bloodshot eyes blink open,
And red spider legs ascend
The cobwebs of forest,
Scissoring them into diamonds.
From ahead, gold lanterns
Sway with gob-eyed goldfish.
They kiss at plastic rest-stops.
Wild men with their thick beards swarming with sun
Stop at gas stations and squeeze out
The dark spit-up beside me, and
A moment suspended between us is forgotten.
Soon it will be blown apart by bildungsromans
Swept off the butt of a flatbed truck
And all that’s blazing and embedded with teeth marks.
I do not care that you are someone who believes
The sun is a golden carriage
And that the moon is an extinct tusk
Dangling over a pounding fire
Or a spotlight loud
Upon millions of pale, upturned faces.
You show me the wet piles of clouds where
Ribboned veins palpitate in bodies in planes
Beating over our heads like red hooves.
You want your heart to be warmed sometimes,
Don’t you? you remind me.
How these little words ring.
You show me how terraces
And sun-butchered landscapes bleed white
From the wide pores of the earth.
Its sweaty legs spreadIn all its ravenous impulses.
No secrets yielded.
You leave a yellowed trench of a bed in the mothy dark
Where just yesterday the topmost layer of the sheets
Had grown with the unnaturalness of pointillism blood.
Maggots have been feasting their way
Like sunken teeth through the molding mound,
Cloaked in a gangrenous white,
The last of which I killed breaking glass bottles.
You had to call the poison-skinned exterminators
In vans who promised you your home would become a tomb.
Since then these breaths of mine endanger the ability to kiss,
To feign slumber while your shirt exposes
The outline of your ribcage when you lean over,
To grasp with filthy fingers and dusty hands around my throat.
This must be what life is.
A sun drying out like an apricot.
Between the crumbling hours
White dinner plates are now clean shaven.
Dusty fan blades remind me of the planet’s panicked whirr,
Remind me of buoyancy
And abyssopelagic breathlessness,
Of bodies circulating a great wrist.
I’ve never caught my childhood friend’s father naked.
I’ve never had seafood finer than hair.
I’ve never argued with those skittish horsegirls on the street
Whose skin is made of trash and spoiled milk
Which I guess you could call trash.
When I walk past tired homes
People hide in dark windows.
In always-yellow cafes I expect people to comment
On the uncomfortablenesss
That all whicker chairs possess.
Instead they comment
That their creamer looks “bombly.”
Above I wonder why one light bulb is lit differently.
One must have droppedFrom the ceiling one night
The released fist of God
And smashed against the cafe floor,
Just glassy cocaine to be snorted,
Whether anyone was there or not.
Maybe: when a light falls
And no one’s there to hear it,
Does it make a sound?
They drag their knuckles
Through pools of milk
As they try to counteract
The fade of their enamel,
Their nostrils to hot steam,
Shoulder blades to cool metal jaws.
Somewhere
A man in front of a fire chuckles,
His front to heat, his back to cold.
If the fire could cavort
And in a breath take the field,
The shrieking trees,
Sending the wildlife out,
Would I remember in the morning?
Caffeine, sweat, and corrosion
Weaken me. 
II.
We are in the same sleep, you and I.
When I ask you, Please,
Would you hold my soul, gaunt and wrinkled,
As you might your purse
While my blood goes curiously about my body?
You oblige.
When Calliope tells me the moon is not in tonight
 Would you like to schedule an appointment?
Would you like an Email alert when it returns? 
You point to the circle of jeweled orphans
It has left behind.
O, give me Atlas’ swarthy–armed constellations,
His sweltering vaults of peppermint comets
That are hurtling towards me crowned!
With malfunctioning fingers I wrap
Round your hair those burning burls of curlicues,
Those messy neurons and droplets of chains,
That polyphonic network
Made of tinseled buds
Made of reverberating rungs
Made of unbreakable knots of fingers,
Skin as hungry as mouths,
Tireless clenching,
Busy work, busy-work, busywork.
People garden signs that tell me
No homes for the homeless
No roads for the roadless
No gods for the godless
While my unemployed wheelbarrow
Slumps in the corner
Growing a stubble of rust.
I pour out its dirtwater, a mosquito brothel,
That swirls tightly, suctioned into a thin black hole,
Reduced to strands of liquid.
I think the scientists call it spaghettification.
All things considered,
They are just massive graves.
The scientists have not found
Which god is us.
They have not seen
The swaddled moon-faces that suckle
From little fat drops of milky sky,
That are caught in the bleach-white snow
Like mammoths awaiting ablation.
It is so bright!
So bright.
Too bright.
They have not seen the hermits,
Refugees from the engine,
With granular spectacles and nebulous bodies of hair
Who watch the world as though they are lighthouses in the desert.
The tarlike oceans too still to be alive,
And docks humming, floating in bluelanternfloodlight,
Suspending wind-up kayakers,
And fishermen who dangle their treats
And await in gossamer beds
Like dark spiders of the water,
And birds white as candles
Who buckle themselves up and dive in streaks,
Who are small enough to nest in eyes.
The dead Nevada sky where
Cartwheeling sparrows spit out dust,
And every man with his dog, gun, and truck
May be scraping plump bodies off of highway strips,
And deadbeat beatniks and tan vigilantes,
And tongues slick with fire fuel
That makes an escape down chins,
And the sun an asterisk teething
On chipped mountains,
And the stupid calm of earthsky folded in half,
And the rictus of yellow skulls burning into the body
Which our automobiles gore and slash,
And sunflowers loud and rupturing,
Palms yanking wide apart
To grasp at the fleeting light,
Already stiffening with night dew,
And sunburned freshslapped faces
That shrivel and crumple
Into a pinpoint
Like a television screen.
The thick people draped
Over fire escapes like rags,
Hot bellies skyward,
Eyes dripping like oiled vegetables,
And dirty artists’ tormented in nirvana,
And snakeskin plastic bags uprooting trees
Into hot air balloons,
And the overbite of the forsaken sun smudge
That lifts grimy and untouchable,
And high offices bare and bright beside
Wooden libraries suspended in dust,
And smoking manholes on the vomiting Vegas sidewalks
Swinging with the incarnation of the soup of jazz,
And jaws that crank open with bleak bonegrindings,
Catching coindrops on their cigarette ash tongues,
Bits of sun crawling from their lips
In cities of asphalt and glass and what have you.
All the little golden teeth
Fall the same. 
O, how I’d like to sleep now!
 To lie with you in early Denverdesert mornings
Where the vitreous world clears like a Polaroid picture.
Only sleep has crusted together my eyelashes
So they are the tiny twisted wings of sparrows.
Beneath them my eyes are turning to salt.
Sun cracked and is spilling all over the place.
My arms drip with yolk that is
Gurgling up from a ground made of crackers.
That may I rest in the dark rhombi of train windows soon
Where grainy films jitter past each other 
Two heads nodding on the street.
The world pulls itself forwards
To each steamy purgatory
On its knees, tender flesh aching.
The receding howls and wails of whistles 
The way things ring when you strike them,
Notes that surely will never fade.
It is not so in the pain of life,
Rather in the pain of our routine days.
How many kneecaps will bruise  
Until my body loves me?
But how joyous, you say to me.
What else should it be but illustrious?
Perhaps mornings made of crows
That lift together the same way heads turn together
To meet an open door,
And leaves hugging themselves to death and
Curling up like cinnamon cigarettes,
And swampy ghost forests by New England highways,
And fraying ghost faces behind counters,
Heads condemned to eternal dragging,
And neighbors just for show
With bones of yarn and
Photos of warm houses to share
Between fingernails of sleepy pretty pink,
And all those dozing buggy roses,
And places where rain comes like a dial tone
Spangle in your eye.
Such things,
Such hard cries of the sheltered.
When will you call for me?
Callouses are entombing my feet now
Under which the enigmatic engine gallops
In obedient pulses.
This white paint of bird shit
Plays connectthedots on my windshield.
Wipers fall like axes.
Somewhere those last gobs
Must have been so holy.
I pass children’s rainshine rubber boots,
Stroller families strung together
Swaying through parks like plush caravans,
And babies strapped into those strange cloth lungs.
How it might be to be unfurled into a cottony mist,
To be hushed and folded into a void.
Love is a language to which I am growing deaf.
Now I hear with my fingers,
Guiding the horns of the knobbed,
Thin-skinned steering wheel
As light deflates with a hiss.
Now I see with the brightness of street steel
And the weak strands of headlights,
Like a miner’s helmet through the tunnels of night.
Machines glide head-to-tail
As though they are floating fish masses
Fanged with light and
Sliding from or
Propelled by
Something I cannot see.
O, tell Calliope I wish not to awaken
In those long gray aisles
As if we migrate on a death march
Just to fill the time,
Golden beams of our slithering automobiles
Touching at one of those ruddy specks
Of ticking tollbooths,
At some gilded destination.
 
Amelia Van Donsel is a seventeen-year-old Waltham High School senior of Waltham, Massachusetts whose work has been displayed at the U.S. Department of Education, published in American High School Poets Just Poetry National Poetry Quarterly as a national winning entry, The Best Teen Writing of 2015 and 2016, as well in an anthology and numerous magazines. As an English tutor and the editor-in-chief of her school’s literary magazine, she has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards with multiple national gold medals and regional awards.