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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

#44 Kaylie Jones

20 Questions with Mourning Goats


Kaylie Jones

Kaylie is fantastic. I've known her for years and finally went to her for some knowledge. Between a new imprint, second black belt, a novel competition, and everything else in her life, I was elated when she said that she would answer a few questions from a sad goat. Check out all of her books, especially one of her newest stories in Long Island Noir, released earlier this year.

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"

We always call our dogs “the goats” because they act more like mountain goats than dogs. So I think first of my two dogs; then I wonder immediately if I am meant to think that this moniker applies to a writer who is mourning his lost goats, or whether the goats are in mourning.

2. Which of your writings are you most proud of? Why? 

Usually I am most proud of what I have last finished. This is a bit like asking a writer, “What is your favorite novel?” It is an unfair question and depends entirely on my mood that day. I think my novel CELESTE ASCENDING was the most complex book, structure-wise, that I will ever write. It took me six years. But, in terms of courage, I’d have to say LIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME. Memoir leaves the writer more exposed, more open to personal criticism. I realized, however, that the subject of denial and alcoholism is such that, in taking this on, I was not going to open the eyes of the world – those that are standing on my side of the fence, who have been forced to deal with their own denial, don’t need the book; those who are still on the other side of the fence would rather shoot themselves than have to face the truth.

3. How did it feel to have one of your books turned into a movie? What was that process like? 

Having A SOLDIER’S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES made into a movie was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. James Ivory and Ismail Merchant are literary filmmakers and they involved the writer whenever they could. My family traveled all over with them and the film; we were on the set; we went to the Venice and Deauville film festivals. It was the most amazing year of my life. I am only sorry that my daughter was too little to remember any of it.

4. What was it like writing a screenplay with your husband, Kevin Heisler? Do you think you'll do more collaborations? 

At heart I am not a screenwriter, though I love movies. This was difficult for me, because my instinct is always to add more. Kevin was always cutting, cutting, trying to explain that a screenplay is just the template for a film. We sold several screenplays, but the films were never made. So I’ll never know if we succeeded in our screenwriting endeavors, or not.

5. Your students have had some big successes, what do you think you do differently, to help them in the right direction? 

As a teacher, I think the most important thing is to never get in the way of the student’s vision. Offer technical advice, suggestions, give emotional support, but allow the student to write the book s/he intended to write. It’s about trying to remain objective, not take over the project and impose a different vision on it. I very rarely suggest a major change in the story. Most of the time, I try to get a feel for what the writer is trying to get to. I think part of being good at this is being able to discern what the writer is trying to get at, rather than what is actually showing up on the page.

6. How do you think growing up in Paris influenced what you write and how you write? 

I believe every writer should speak at least two or three languages. The ability to express myself in another language has been very helpful to me as a writer. Also, when you grow up in a foreign country, and you are always an outsider, even when you can assimilate pretty well into the culture, you learn to watch and listen as an outsider. Most writers are outsiders in one way or another; I have found this to be true almost across the board. Growing up in France also made me open-minded toward other cultures. Open-mindedness toward other cultures is something I feel is sorely lacking in the US.

7. Who's your first reader and why? 

I have four or five people I give my early drafts to for feedback. They are great readers, very intelligent, usually writers, and are not afraid to tell me what they think. I give the same pages to different people for different reasons. I have an old friend, a former athlete, who doesn’t read fiction much, and I give him my pages to whether my work a) can be appreciated by men who spend their free time watching football and basketball; b) will put them to sleep or keep them awake.

8. Do you feel that you're compared to your father, novelist James Jones, a lot? 

The only thing our writing has in common is honesty. We had completely different educations, different influences. My father loved the great American novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I like books that are tight, light on their feet, at their perfect fighting weight. I sometimes wonder what he would have thought of my work. I believe he would have liked my books. The thing I regret most in life is that I never got the chance to sit down and discuss my work with him. How I wish I could have asked him why he did this here, and that there, and why did he think Tolstoy did this in this in his battle scenes, and what did he think of, for example, Edith Wharton? Oh, the things I would have discussed with him. My heart still aches at the thought of that loss.

9. Are you a fan of e-books? How do you think they're going to change literature?

I used to go on vacation with five or six books in my suitcase or carry-on bag. I am delighted to have a tablet on which I can carry as many books as I like. I spend way too much money on e-books, but I don’t feel nearly as guilty as I used to, bringing home bagsful of books, to this little apartment where the books were already three deep on the sagging shelves. When we moved two years ago, I said, “That’s it! No more books!” We got rid of 75% of our library. I can’t say I miss them. They gathered dust and exacerbated my bronchitis. I no longer feel the need to identify myself to others by the books I’ve read. I couldn’t care less what people think of my erudition or lack thereof. In a way, it was a huge relief to get rid of those books.

In terms of whether e-books will change literature, it is hard to say at this point. Everyone can self-publish nowadays. But that doesn’t mean the work is worth reading. It’s a veritable tidal wave of self-published books. Hopefully, we’ll figure our way through this, just as we figured our way through the invention of the printing press. However, the option of not having to answer only to big publishing houses, or to distributors, is quite refreshing to me as a writer of literary fiction. Many of my students have had a hard time finding publishers. This is extremely distressing to me, when I know how good their work is. Because a book is not ‘commercial enough’ does not mean it is not worth publishing.

10. Do you think you would be a writer today if you hadn't grown up rubbing elbows with some of the biggest writers in recent history? 

They were rich, they were famous. I never knew any struggling writers. I thought people could make an excellent living as writers. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening! Writers used to be taken much more seriously than they are now in our society. After 9/11, no one asked the great American writers what they thought. They asked the actors!

11. You've done readings all over the world, what's your favorite part about them? Least favorite part? 

I enjoy meeting new people and discussing books. But I don’t like walking into a strange bookstore or library, not knowing who is going to be there, and how many people are going to show up. It can be very uncomfortable, going to a new place and having only one or two people in the audience. I no longer just randomly agree to do readings in unknown venues anymore. It’s too nerve wracking. 

12. You spoke in another interview about thinking it's better that someone else adapts a book into a screenplay, and not the original author, can you go into more detail on why you think this way? 

Novelists are often too close to their own work to do a good adaptation. Screenplays are all about structure, and ultimately, the director’s vision. Writers often can’t see the proverbial forest for the trees when they are adapting their own work. I advised on the screenplay of my novel, but I am glad Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and James Ivory wrote the screenplay.

13. What's it like being a chair for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship? What do you look for when judging this? 

This contest is a lot of work, but so rewarding. We have many, many talented readers who initially read the manuscripts. I often ask my graduate students to read for us. It helps them identify what they shouldn’t do in the first 50 pages of their novels! We whittle it down to the top 10%, then down to the top five best manuscripts. Often, if it comes down to two manuscripts, and one is clearly more commercial and has a better chance at getting published, we pick the more literary, more difficult sell, because that book needs the help more than the other one.

Calling the winner is such a life-affirming gift. Every year, we ask one of the judges to make the call. Everyone loves getting a chance to do this. Imagine, you get to call a total stranger and say, “Congratulations, you just won $10,000 and we loved your novel.” People sometimes burst into tears. Sometimes they drop the phone. Once, the woman was speechless. She literally couldn’t talk and I had to wait several minutes, trying to convince her that it was not a hoax. One winner told me she was about to throw her novel  out, she was so discouraged by the rejection of publishers and agents. After she won the award, her novel was published and became a best-seller.

14. Do you still have a writing group that meets at your house? Do you find them necessary? 

This master class has been going since 1989. Some people leave and come back; some have been coming for twenty years. Most of these writers have published but they still relish the feeling of community and support. It’s also a trust issue. If you’ve been working with the same writers for many years, a certain bond develops, and it is very helpful to the struggling writer who feels alone. Most writers are ‘different;’ their friends generally don’t write, and they feel quite isolated in their process. Most of these people have become my good friends; I no longer think of them as students or of myself as their ‘teacher.’

15. When do you know that a book is finished? 

Never. I generally don’t go back and reread my published books, because my instinct is to get out a pen and start editing. Akashic did a beautiful reprint of A SOLDER’S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES, and the first thing I asked was, “Can I change some things?” I even added a new story, which was blatantly missing from the first edition. A story about the mother, which I was not ready to write when the book was first published in 1990.

16. New York City; what does the city mean to you and your life in publishing? Is the location key? 

I have not found another place in the US where I could live and this has nothing to do with publishing. If anything, the New York publishing world feels provincial to me. But to live -- I tried New Orleans, Florida, Long Island. I feel at home in Paris. I feel at home in New York. What I love about New York is the neighbors don’t come knocking on the door with cookies and the expectation that you are going to invite them in for coffee. I love the anonymity of New York City; I love that a person can walk around with purple dots on his face and no one says, “Get the f***k out of here!” Walking my dog this morning, I heard Russian, French, Arabic, and some other language that might have been Hungarian. I love that. Particularly what I love about New York is that no one tires to shove evangelical Christianity down your throat, which seems to be the case in many parts of the country. Just driving down the highway in Indiana or Illinois, posters yell at you to repent now and what have you done for Jesus today. That kind of religious zealotry makes my skin crawl. My daughter gets school vacation days for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. She wants to get a menorah this year, even though we’re not Jewish. I’ll have to ask my Jewish friends, is it okay to get a menorah if you’re not Jewish? We also have a little statue of Ganesha and a bronze Christ figure, as well as a Buddha. That’s what I love about New York.

17. Do you think you've taken any of the things you've learned earning your black belts and incorporated them into your writing? 

Earning my two black belts was probably the thing I am most proud of. I started very late in life, so I will never be a great martial artist, but the mental control and overcoming fear (fear of failure, fear of being laughed at, all kinds of fear) has been an immeasurable gift to me. I can truly say, after that experience, I fear very little. And I’ve gotten used to getting laughed at, my martial arts instructor laughs at me every day.

18. What would you say if your daughter decided to become an author, as well? 

My daughter is an excellent writer but I have been trying to convince her to be a rocket scientist since she was two. No acting, no singing, no dancing, no painting, and definitely no writing. Someone in this family has to learn to make a living.

19. You're a creative writing professor at a low-residency program as well as an in-residence program. How do you feel the programs prepare students for the real world, differently? 

I don’t think they are very different. The in-residence program meets at night, so most of the students have day jobs, just like the students in the low-residency program. My feeling about MFA programs in general is that we don’t prepare students enough for the brutal reality of what the world of commercial publishing is like. I believe students come to MFA programs thinking they are going to be the next Stephen King, or the next Margaret Atwood. They have no idea how hard it is to find a publisher, let alone a good agent. I try to help my students as best I can, but it’s an uphill battle. Some of my very best students have not been able to find publishers, which breaks my heart.

20. What's next for Kaylie Jones? 

I’m starting an imprint at Akashic Books. I am going to publish emerging writers whose work, for whatever reason, is considered a ‘hard sell’ by mainstream publishing. This is a very exciting endeavor, and we’re all set to go with the first novel, which will be published next fall. It is a historical novel set in 1917 rural Illinois, by Laurie Loewenstein, a graduate of the Wilkes MFA program. The novel is called UNMENTIONABLES, and is about a dress-reform activist who goes on the Chautauqua lecture circuit and in her rousing speech, urges conservative Midwestern matrons to free themselves of their corsets and other confining undergarments and join the 20th century. 

Thank you!


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Up and Coming Author: Andrew Post

Welcome to a fun new section of Mourning Goats, with up and coming authors! A quick 11 questions brought to the Goat by Andrew Post, our first Up and Comer!
1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"

I see a lonely day-drinking goat in a run-down bar. Flipping through a photo album on his phone, of him with the one he lost.

2. What is the working title of your next book?


3. Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was doing laundry, daydreaming, hands on autopilot as one does when they have to pair a thousand identical socks when a scene just hit me. A man in an interrogation room. Just this scruffy, roughed-up fella who was unwilling to speak in his own defense at all. He knew he was in the wrong and was completely okay with it. Brody, the main character, appeared in that sudden mind-gust just as he does in the novel.

4. What genre does your book fall under?

Science fiction. Near-future SF with a light sprinklin’ of noir gumshoeing.

5. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

For Brody, Dermot Mulroney was who I saw as I was writing the novel. For Thorp, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

6. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

After an injury in the military, blind vigilante Brody Calhoun tempers his rage with brass knuckles -- but is he really in control?

7. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s being published by Medallion Press, March 1st, 2013.

8. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It took me probably close to three months to do the first “draft.” I tend to do those pretty quick, get all of the broad strokes of the story out as fast as possible. I let it sit for a month or two, then go back and tweak, then let it sit again. I accumulate ideas for additions and changes, set them aside, and then dive back in a third time and rejigger where needed. I consider all of that to be the “first draft.” So, collectively, close to eight months, nine.

9. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’d probably compare it to Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels. Similar vibe, with the stiff-upper-lip protagonist and grimy future backdrop and what-have-you. Grunge. Nastiness. You know, that fun stuff. Maybe some early William Gibson stuff as well, when he was writing stories in the Sprawl.

10. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was living in a small town out in rural Minnesota for a few years in a rented house, writing precious little. Nothing really inspired me there. Work, home, work. When my wife and I moved into the Twin Cities, I experienced what I consider to be picture perfect culture shock. I wasn’t a bumpkin or anything, I’d been there before, but living in the city, being there all the time, I felt like such a fish out of water. It wasn’t like it was in the sticks, no one waved to one another, everybody here had this look on their face like, “Get the hell out of my way.” Noise, traffic, the smells, that relentless hum of the highway you can hear no matter where you are. Being out of the boonies made me want to write about it, oddly enough, and feeling like an interloper to urban life made me feel constantly anxious when outside. Those two things collided and my version of a near-future Midwest is what came out.

11. What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

Brody Calhoun is based on a certain individual in Greek mythology who also had a remarkably short fuse, Hercules. If my homework is correct, Hercules went through twelve trials. And if I’m to keep with that theme, Brody should experience twelve trials as well. We cover just one in Knuckleduster. That leaves eleven more . . .


Monday, October 15, 2012

#43 David Rees

20 Questions with Mourning Goats
David Rees

David is one of the first authors that I saw a review about in some magazine and then couldn't stop running across his book, How to Sharpen Pencils, in the bookstore. It felt like I couldn't go into a bookstore without seeing the book, so I had to seek him out, and I'm glad I did. I loved reading about him, and his interview is a treat! Thanks, David!

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"

John Darnielle feeling sad.
2. Let's just start this with "How to Sharpen Pencils," you're honestly making money sharpening pencils? About how many have you sharpened for money at this point?

I've sharpened about 800 pencils for clients around the world.
3. What's one of your favorite pencil facts that you want to share with the Mourning Goats audience?

American pencil consumption increased 6.8% from 2010 to 2011.
4. Every time I see your book in the store, I think to myself, "that's awesome, he's really rocking pencils," how do you explain your success?

My goal was to celebrate the common #2 pencil as a nostalgic object and a highly engineered communication tool. I think people are happy to be reminded of how cool pencils are.
5. I love that you referred to your books as "coded memoirs," did your close friends and/or ex, get that sense from the book?

My ex-wife really liked the book and picked up on a bunch of references that most readers won't pick up on.
6. Are you living back in the city again? I read in one interview you said that the pencil-sharpening period of your life might be coming to a close after moving back.

I live in Beacon, NY but I take the train to NYC fairly often.
7. It feels as though you have specific blocks of your life and personality in each of the projects that you take on, your books, your stand-up, and your comics, care to comment on that?

I think I get interested in different things and then I explore them until something else comes along and attracts my interest.
8. Speaking of your comic, "Get Your War On," when you first started it, you were listening to slow-jams, like Jodeci and R.Kelly, is music a large influence of your work?

I listen to music a fair amount. Usually when I'm writing I'll listen to a single song over and over again. I probably listened to "The Box" by Johnny Flynn around 700 times while writing How to Sharpen Pencils.
9. I love how much emphasis you put on the importance of language and professionalism in your humor writing. Where did this come from?

I've always liked language. When I was a kid I would make up fake words and say them over and over again. It drove my parents crazy. Then I studied philosophy, and a lot of 20th century philosophy is about language and the use of language.
10. When Rolling Stone contacted you about putting the comic in their magazine, how did you feel? I couldn't imagine Rolling Stone calling me and saying, "Hi, we love what you do, want to do it for us?"

I was excited. I really liked being in Rolling Stone. It made me happy when people would write to say they read my comic while waiting in the dentist's office.
11. What was it like self-publishing a book and then getting it released by Soft Skull?

Self-publishing can be rewarding, but it's a lot of work. Soft Skull did a great job with the first GYWO book. They sent me out on a pretty extensive tour, and I had a blast.
12. I'm so impressed abut you giving away around $100,000 from your "Get Your War On" profits. Do you think that doing this set you up for future success, especially working for the census?

Well, it set me up for working for the census insofar as I had no money.
13. How did John Hodgman end up doing the forward to "How to Sharpen Pencils?"

John is an old friend and a supporter of ArtisanalPencilSharpening.com. He's a great writer who can balance funny writing with sincere writing, so he was the first person I asked to write the foreword.
14. You cut out an entire chapter about mechanical pencils from your book, can it be found anywhere? It makes sense to cut it, but I'm sure people would be interested in your thoughts.

It was an extended analysis of different mechanical pencils available at my local Rite-Aid. It was very detailed and very boring.
15. How long does it usually take to sharpen a pencil? I guess each technique is different?

I can sharpen, document, and pack about four pencils per hour. Five, if I'm in the zone. Different techniques take different amounts of time -- the technique that takes longest is using a knife.
16. Have you heard from a lot of your earlier fans from "Get Your War On" coming and reaching out when they read "How to Sharpen Pencils? What's that like?

Not really. I assume most people don't make the connection between GYWO and my pencil sharpening business. The vibe is pretty different.
17. What's your writing process like? Do you write every day?

Procrastinate, procrastinate, panic, write.
18. One of the funniest things I read was that you don't use pencils too much because your left handed, does it make you sad? A little ironic (don't ya think)?

It doesn't make me sad, but when I was younger it would frustrate me to get pencil smudges all over the side of my hand. I was jealous of my right-handed friends.
19. We know that you've been a cartoonist, writer, census worker, and pencil-sharpener (as noted on your wikipedia page), but what other positions have you held? Do you feel like they've made you the writer you are, today?

I've had lots of jobs over the years-- office jobs, teaching jobs, cleaning jobs, temp jobs. I spent two years working for a corneal surgeon; that was interesting.
20. What's next for David Rees?
I have a project I'm working on that makes me more excited than anything I've done in years. It will be a 90-second video that will make you very happy, I promise. That's all I can say about it.

Thank you!


Sunday, July 15, 2012

#42 Suzy Vitello

20 Questions with Mourning Goats

Suzy is another writer out of the Portland, Oregon writing group touting Chelsea Cain, Monica Drake, Lidia Yuknavitch, and many others. She's great and after reading the interview you should go find as much as you can by her! Enjoy!

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"

Grieving livestock.

2. What's the deal with your writing group? What's different about it that so many of you are getting so much press?

It’s a crazy Zeitgeist, isn’t it? To have so many writers in one group achieve best-sellerdom and critical acclaim? I think there’s an element of luck, but the other thing is, the members of my writers’ group are incredibly hard-working and disciplined. For the most part, we’re workaholics with strong personalities, big dreams, all smothered in that famous quirky Portland vibe.

3. I completely agree with the line on your website, "Everything I write is a love story of one type or another," what does that mean to you?

What I mean by that rather lofty statement is: stories are a writer’s particular vehicle to exploring universal humanity.

That said, I’ll tell you a funny story. Recently, I was trying to extract my domain name from a notoriously evil domain management principal who shall go unnamed. He was jerking me around, so I had to throw the ICANN rules in his face—which state, if the domain owner wants a registrar to release a domain (and issue the magic release code) they must do so within 5 days. He wrote back that my tagline was a lie, and that I should change it to “almost everything I write is a love story.” Score one for the asshole.

4. Your work is represented by Melissa Sarver, over at The Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency, how did that happen? Do you think having an agent is necessary?

As far as how it happened, the usual: tenacity, rejection, more tenacity. I ventured into the world of YA with my EMPRESS CHRONICLES novel, and I really had no leads for YA agents, so I researched, queried, and after a couple of months landed Melissa, who has tirelessly helped me through two subsequent drafts of my book.

And yes, though the times they are a-changin’ in publishing, at this writing, an agent is still a writer’s best advocate to significant publication. However, my friends who chose different paths (self-pubbing and small press) have been pretty satisfied with their choices.

5. You're leading a 6-week online workshop, over at LitReactor. What's going on with this and how did you get involved?

My friend, colleague and, back when she did that sort of thing, agent, Erin Reel, pitched me to them. I have worked as an editor and a sort of coach and “prose therapist” in small group and one-on-one settings for several years. I love it! Really, getting the toolbox out and getting under the chassis of a project with its author is exhilarating. 

LItReactor is a terrific craft resource. The folks taking my class are from all over—Australia, Prague, Canada, various U.S. cities---and they’re so enthusiastic about getting their writing in kick-ass top-notch form. The infrastructure itself—the backend, if you will—is one of the best I’ve used. Intuitive, easy to navigate.

6. Do you think that Facebook, Twitter, and websites are needed tools in writer's toolboxes, nowadays?

Absolutely. It’s where all the buzz is being spread now. That said, it’s so easy to get sucked into the constantness of it. There’s this really funny Portlandia skit where Fred gets trapped in a technology loop: the various devices and mediums—you can become an air traffic controller of infinitesimal minutiae. All these writers tweeting about how they’re not writing. And God forbid you forget to post Happy Birthday upon the Wall of someone’s Facebook. That shit can keep you up at night.

7. You talked a lot about branding last year on your website, was that because you were re-doing your own brand, or because it's something people need to realize earlier on, or both?

I’ve spent the last decade in communications: writing content for websites, ads, packaging, and working with companies, small businesses and nonprofits on building their businesses, so talking about branding is an occupational hazard. My first copywriting gigs were directed at hedge fund managers. Talk about your shark-infested waters. Those guys gobble each other up for breakfast. 

As my colleague and web-designer Julia Stoops says, “Information is cheap—it’s attention that’s become expensive.” So the elements of voice, specificity of language, depth and freshness of character and plot, all those things need to be delivered in an identifiable visual brand now in order to rise to the top of the heap. That brand needs to permeate web, social, bookcovers, even in-person events. My friend Lidia stripped down to her bathing suit on her book tour for CHRONOLOGY OF WATER. Swear.

8. Would you consider yourself a short story writer, or a novelist?

After WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL? came out, I heard Lorrie Moore answer a similar question in a lecture q & a. She said something about throwing a stick for a dog. If it comes back right away, it’s a story. If the dog takes it and runs with it, it’s a novel.

So far, I’ve had more publishing success with my stories, but that’s about to change. It better change. Will it ever change?

9. You have three kids and two step-kids, how do you make time to write, let alone blog, be social, and answer interviews?

The kid part is not a problem. Only one of the five is still underfoot, and he’s just turned the corner to the You must knock before entering my room phase, so mostly it’ll just be about sporadic redirection and begging him to play the occasional game of Yahtzee with us.

Like many writers building a career, the multiple-hats thing, well, there’s no getting around it. You’re either teaching, editing, promoting, fixing your car, getting a mammogram, building a chicken coop, getting your cardio in. The trick is to develop a regimen where you do your writing when you’re most creative and alive. For most people that’s early morning. For me, it’s after I’ve taken a long, sweaty walk.

10. What do you do when you're not writing? Can you tell us about BridgePoint Creative?

I started BridgePoint Creative with one of my best friends, Laura McCulloch. It was a sort of Rhoda spin-off of the Mary Tyler Moore Show in that Laura and I got our start in communications working for Laura’s East Coast sister Cynthia for several years. We decided to open our own shop because we wanted to concentrate on West Coast businesses, and focus on nonprofit and lifestyle clients.

At the end of 2011, I made the very difficult decision to leave BridgePoint in order to focus on writing and writing-related projects. I still do a bit of freelance copywriting work for BridgePoint and other agencies, under my own DBA, Words in a Hurry. I do the love the expansive element of agency-client work, but I’ve cut way back on it in order to focus on writing.

11. You were a writer-in-residence at Fishtrap about 10 years ago, what was that like? Would you do something like that again?

Was it really 10 years ago? I guess it was! My life was a chaotic mess then. I was struggling to leave a marriage, raise my three kids (one of whom was then a toddler), and go to grad school. Oh yeah, and make enough money to pay for health insurance. Which I needed, because my kids came down with every illness imaginable in those years. In fact, the three months I was out in Joseph doing Fishtrap, they were sicker than ever. We’re talking ambulance rides down icy lanes, and major pharmies—it was a bit like Little House on the Prairie: blizzards, plagues, locusts, though nobody, thank goodness, went blind.

Sick kids aside, the experience was magical. I got to teach in all the various Wallowa County schools—including two one-room schoolhouses, and I met genuine, fantastic, unjaded, kind people. A farmer set me up with root vegetables, another made sure I got an invitation to all the community gatherings; I learned how to make tamales; I skied and ice-skated and built fires from massive chunks of aged oak.

Yes, I would do it again. Once my youngest child graduates high school, I’d love to take my husband (not the one I finally left—the new one) out there and hole up in that riverside cabin, write, snowshoe, teach. It would be heavenly.

12. You have two books on your website, currently, what genre would you categorize your writing?

Why, love stories, goat, you know that! Not romance, exactly, not straight YA, not chic-lit, not quite literary—I suppose that’s my trouble. I’m not an easy one to categorize. Which is a big no-no in branding, isn’t it. What I can say is that my core audience, for both books I’ve written, is most likely 15 – 60-yr-old women. I think that voice-driven YA and NA (New Adult—newish term), which I believe is my sweet spot, definitely has a crossover audience. My EMPRESS CHRONICLES book could easily be described as typical YA, age-wise. The protagonist is 14 at the beginning of the book and 16 at the end. However, I would LOVE to write at least a trilogy with that character. Sisi was a real historic figure who led a fascinating life during a memorable time in recent history. I would relish the opportunity to take my fantastical version of her life story as far as they’d let me.

13. The blog that you have written from the viewpoint of your character Princess Sisi is something I haven't seen, what made you start doing that?

It was a fun, sort of scavenger-hunt way into the research, at first. But the bigger draw for me ties into my background. I’ve lived in a lot of places, especially early on in life. I got good at appropriating accents and colloquialisms. Blogging in-persona is an outgrowth of my compensatory habit of character assumption. And, you know, I’m a Gemini, so there you have it.

14. You've been up in Portland since 2008. It seems to be the art capitol of the West Coast, what's the draw?

Actually, Goat, I’ve lived in Portland since 1989. I came here on a lark, fell in love with that big beautiful mountain that you can see from any clear hilltop, and I’ll never leave.

I know there’s this ongoing Portland/Brooklyn spar for ├╝ber hipdom (and I have to be careful here, because my agent lives in Brooklyn), but Portland is the least derivative place I’ve ever been. The folks here do what they do in defiance of norm or trend. The spirit of authenticity in Portland is as contagious as a February flu.

15. You did NANOWRIMO back in 2008,what was the biggest thing you learned from it?

Not to do it again.

16. It says on your Google+ page that you went to Antioch University for your MFA, what do you think about the teaching of creative writing?

My Google+ page, eh? So that’s what it’s good for! The MFA program at Antioch Los Angeles was, is, amazing. I made life-long friendships, worked with brilliant people, and was able to fit it into my working mom life because it was a non-residency program. Plus, I got to leave Portland’s rather gloomy Decembers three times, for ten days a pop and stroll amid orange trees.

As far as “teaching” creative writing, there certainly is craft to be learned, but the main reason to do an MFA or take any workshop or class in creative writing is to formalize the decision to write. Many people need that permission and encouragement, and in some cases, it provides a catalyst to embrace their more real selves.

17. What's your draw to 1800's fashion/lifestyle/etc.?

The first six years of my life was spent scurrying along behind my mother on the streets of Vienna. If you believe the stuff about the way a brain develops and how early impressions shape later aesthetics, I suppose that’s what draws me to all of that fancy stuff.

I’ve become obsessed with the art and fashion of historic mainstream production, however. I think my cells rearrange when I gawk at the stylish Mad Men scenes or, lately, Downtown Abbey. The outfits and fabrics and style, they are my porn.

Truly, though, most days I shove my hair into pigtails, pull on my yoga pants and that’s it—my daily ensemble. Though I did just drop a pretty penny on a couple of mid-century chairs.

18. I saw that you sent your work in progress to your kindle, last year, for your own review. How do you think e-readers are going to change literature?

You can “see” stuff like that? Really? Jesus. Yes, I wanted to get a feel for what an e-book version of my book would look like. Really, with historically-based fiction, the possibilities of linking to “value add” info and pictures would be limitless! In fact, I’d love to see THE EMPRESS CHRONICLES ultimately as a multi-media e-book—it would be another way to repurpose all those Empress Sisi blog posts and Pinterest boards!

When e-readers accomplish the full spectrum of their worthiness, I see them becoming the link that keeps literature from dying the death of the stone tablet. Millions of kids are growing up in front of screens, my son included. I think electronic devices will replace paperbound books in the classroom completely within the next 15 – 20 years.

19. What's your writing process like? Do you outline, write straight through, what's it look like?

My writing process, like my mind, is a complete mess. Nobody should take notes from me on process! I use an outline just so I can rebel against something. So I can say, “Fuck you, I’m not doing that.”

Really, what’s most sacred to me about the process is the magic that happens when you follow a depth of inquiry. Picture walking down a dark hallway with your candelabra, and seeing something half-formed; fleshing it out. You stumble upon the reveal, and then construct the search party that led you there. A real daisy-stitch.

20. January 2nd, 2009, you wrote an awesome post on your blog, about publishing goals and a little story about the author of Fight Club, what are your big goals for this year?

Three years ago I was preaching aim high! Go for it! Do it! Today, I’m about finishing things. Being thorough. I have resolved to dig deeper in my work, nurture, nest and, finally, to celebrate the success of rereading something I wrote and being satisfied, at long last. In concrete terms, I want to sell both of my novels to editors who get down on their knees and promise to love, honor and cherish. The size of the rock doesn’t matter. Lofty, eh?

Thank you!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

#41 Shya Scanlon

20 Questions with Mourning Goats
Shya Scanlon

Shya is awesome. He's written poetry, fiction, and just had his novel, Forcast, come out, again. We'll get to that. It's my pleasure to introduce you to someone that wears a lot of hats at a lot of different organizations, and an all around great guy.

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"

Those goats that fall over when scared. Or are they sheep? I don’t remember the species, exactly, but have you seen those crazy videos? I think it’s fainting. Fainting goats. Though I don’t think they’re actually fainting, they’re just pretending, so maybe they should be called feinting goats instead. Hell, maybe they are called feinting goats. Or swooning. Swooning is similar to mourning. At least we’re in the same vowel-sound ballpark. But which one is more literal?

2. When I first came to you, last year, you said that you would like to wait for the interview, when your book was coming out again. How did that come in to play?

Well, first of all, thank you very much for humoring me. I asked for the extension for a couple of reasons. When you contacted me, it was just after another interview had gone live, and I figured no one would be interested in hearing me blather on again so soon. But also I felt like there needed to be an occasion. Call me old fashioned. Honestly, it seems strange to speak about myself as a writer, despite the fact that I’ve spent the last couple years working on a new novel. I’ve been pretty reclusive lately, going to very few readings, not visiting the go-to online literary communities like HTMLGiant, Big Other, The Nervous Breakdown (except to publish other people’s reviews), etc. I’m a naturally gregarious person, but I find that participation in those venues leads me to be more self-conscious, and is a detriment to my work. Perhaps I’ll dip my toes back in a bit once I’ve finished my book, but answering these questions is exercising a rather atrophied muscle.

3. You have some pretty heavy hitters blurbing your first book, including Peter Straub and Brian Evenson, how did that happen?

Brian was my thesis advisor at Brown, so he read an earlier version of the book and helped me make it better. I met Peter through my friendship with his daughter, the very kind and talented Emma Straub, whose first published book was a novella put out by Flatmancrooked. Strangely, I’d originally become aware of Peter because Brian had brought him in to read at Brown, and I quickly discovered that he was a supporter of the kind of literature people alternately call “slipstream,” or “cross-genre,” or, more broadly, “speculative,” and had edited an issue of the fantastic journal Conjunctions dedicated to “The New Fabulists.” I had a hunch that he’d enjoy Forecast, so I put it in his hands. I couldn’t have been happier, or more surprised, with his superlative comments about the book.

4. What did the John Hawkes Prize mean to your career?

Very little. John Hawkes is probably one of the most under-read literary titans of the second half of the 20th century. Most people probably assume that it’s associated with the actor from Deadwood. That said, it was nice to get the award.

5. Originally, Forecast was serialized across multiple sites, is it still available online or was it taken off once it was published?

Well, most of it is still available (http://shyascanlon.com/forecast/), but some of the sites have since been taken down. It’s been a while since I went through and checked, but last I did I believe all chapters but two or three are still available. It’s an interesting archive—the book changed considerably since that serialization. A big press would probably have asked me to take it down, but both the presses I’ve worked with so far haven’t even questioned its digital life—I think there’s a tacit acknowledgment among the small press community that what was born online should remain there, at least in the form it was first given.

6. You had a lot of contact with your agent before she accepted you on, what happened?

I met Erin Hosier socially, though I didn’t know her very well, and she actually passed on Forecast. She ended up taking on another book, called Uno Che at the time (it has since been renamed Border Run), but couldn’t sell it. We received the usual talented-writer-unsellable-book crap from maybe a dozen people, then decided to shelf the project. I felt it might need some more work, anyway… (For a continued discussion of this topic, see question #20.)

7. What was it like writing a dystopian novel, is it scary to see that kind of future?

Well, is it scary to look around yourself at our world? Yes and no. Some of the issues we face are indeed terrifying to consider or logically extend, but you can’t live your life in a state of panic. At least, not your sheltered, middle class life. And that’s what most of the people in Forecast live. Honestly, I’m discovering that this is really “my subject”—something I return to in book after book. The question of how people live with large scale atrocity or imminent cataclysm in the background, but with rather banal, interpersonal and/or internal issues to deal with in the meantime. I try to push these things into relief more than they are in reality, but it’s an attempt to establish something that should be familiar. At least, it’s familiar to me.
8. Your undergraduate degree is in Germanic Studies from Earlham College, what did you originally want to do with that degree?

Read Nietzsche. Honestly, getting a German degree was just my way of returning to college, which I dropped out of after the first semester. I just couldn’t think of a good reason to go, but I’d always enjoyed German thinkers and writers, and I thought learning a language and travelling to Germany could do the trick. I spent six months over there, and actually picked up the language pretty well. Though I didn’t end up reading any Nietzsche, I did read some wonderful work in the original, including books by Kafka. Anyway, by the time I got back from the study-abroad program my only option was to major in German if I wanted to graduate without taking additional coursework, so I did. Barely. Actually, I’m quite certain I should have failed, had my professors judged me by the books. I think they felt sorry for me. I was a lousy student, and very depressed throughout those years. Thanks for bringing that up!

9. An MFA from Brown in 2008, what do you think of MFA's? Are they necessary for a budding author?

Certainly not necessary. Brown is free. You get a living stipend. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

10. Do you think serializing the novel got you to write it differently? Do you think it would have been the same novel if you went at it in a more traditional way?

Actually, I didn’t write the thing while it was being serialized. That would have been quite a feat! No, I’d spent nearly seven years writing the book by the time I decided to give it away. I’d frankly had quite traditional aspirations for it throughout much of that time, as I mistakenly considered it quite mainstream. Of course by the time of the serialization the eyes of my eyes, as cummings wrote, were open.
11. Who’s your first reader? Why?

Literally, my first reader is myself. Once I finish something I put it down for a while—as long as I can stand—then read it again with as much objectivity as possible. (Which is to say: none. But I try.) Of course, you’re probably asking about someone other than myself. And for that I’d have to say my wife Erin Flaherty. She’s got a great ear, but as importantly, she knows exactly what kind of feedback I need at the moment.

12. What are you scared of seeing happen in the future?

This is one of those questions that can only be answered by picking something at random. There are innumerable things I’m scared of, and most of them could happen in the future. But rather than site something specific, I’ll answer generally: the deepest tragedy I can think of would be for humans to lose our humanity, and then forget that we’d ever possessed it.

13. What's it like working for The Nervous Breakdown?

TNB is a very tightly knit community of hundreds of people. Paradoxical as that may sound, one has the singular sense, being part of it, that one’s in the company of both a closely connected crew, and a vast swarm. It’s gone through some pretty dramatic changes during the time I’ve been involved—each time growing more professional—but it’s always been an interesting project. And of course with the tireless Brad Listi at the helm, how could it be otherwise? I started as one of the fiction editors, but then my interests (and the fact that I was already a fiction editor with Monkeybicycle) led me to splinter off and form an official Book Reviews section, which Brad has let me run and develop fairly autonomously. Being a reviews editor has been enormously gratifying—not only do I get to provide coverage for books I find deserving, but I get to work with a varied stable of smart people who read voraciously. The free galleys don’t hurt either.

14. Do you write every day? It seems as though that's important to most.

I try to. Right now I’m in the midst of revising a novel I finished at the end of the year, and I spend a couple hours on it every morning before work. On the weekends, I’ve been renovating a cabin in Woodstock, so I haven’t been able to devote as much time as I normally would to it, but actually, I’m writing this now from the porch of that very cabin, which, aside from a couple small details, is finally finished. I’m taking this coming week off work to “catch up” with where I should be, revision-wise.

15. I feel like those who were poets first choose their words wiser than the rest of us, what do you think about that? Do you agree?

What I can tell you is that my own experience with poetry has actually been something I’ve had to consciously overcome in order to write the kind of fiction I’d like to write. An over-emphasis on words led me to write far too much prose with underdeveloped characters, settings, scenes, and story.

16. In 2010 you got engaged, published your first poetry book, published your first novel, and bought a house, how could you beat that year?

I’m going to answer this seriously. I hope that I’m always learning how to be a better human—a more conscientious spouse, a more responsible citizen, a better friend, a kick-ass-er writer. But I’m also chronically self-critical. You seem to be paraphrasing a Facebook post in which I may have rattled these accomplishments off in some attempt to remind myself that I’m doing okay. Mostly that’s not the way I feel. This is one of the things I’m trying to improve.

17. I see that your book is on Kindle, what do you think of the e-book revolution?
I don’t have strong feelings about it one way or another. I think if people spent half as much time writing and reading as they do quibbling about the relative merits of text delivery systems, we’d all be better off.

18. What's it been like working with different presses, do you notice a lot of big differences?

There have been small differences, sure. And at root, republishing something is probably a different animal than publishing it for the first time—though of course it was never for the first time with Forecast, because it had already debuted online. But generally, all people who volunteer their time, attention, and paycheck to make sure books with inherently small audiences are nonetheless available have more in common than not. And God bless them.

19. Before you leave, tell us about MonkeyBicycle.

MB has been around long enough to weather different literary fads, yet has remained true to its voice. Ultimately, it’s Steven Seighman’s baby. He does it with much love, he does it with devotion, and he does it at his own speed. I think of each issue of Monkeybicycle as an event—one I’m happy to play a role in. In fact, issue 9 just dropped, and is extremely good. The best way to learn more about it than that is to check out the website (updated twice weekly), and buy a copy.

20. What's next for Shya Scanlon?

(con’t from #6) A couple months ago, a writer and editor named Zack Wentz solicited work from me for his online journal of speculative fiction called New Dead Families. Instead of sending him a story, I sent him a short novel called Border Run. Despite needed a little work, I thought it would be great fun to post the entire thing, and to offer it as a free downloadable ebook. He wasn’t quite certain it would be a good idea until he read the book, and in the intervening weeks has helped me fix much of what was wrong with the manuscript, such that I’m finally really quite happy with it. I think it will go live early this month (July), and I couldn’t be more pleased. I’m including a synopsis below, but I encourage anyone reading this to go to www.newdeadfamilies.com and download a copy (available in both .mobi and .pdf formats). It’s free! Free fiction! And I’ve been told it’s “maybe brilliant.”

UNO CHE is a dystopian story of love, loss and redemption set on border of Arizona and Mexico. Jack Lightning is the proprietor of a theme park about illegal border crossing. While trying to keep his business running smoothly and preparing, despite the suspiciously gathering Native American protesters across the street, for an annual fair on the grounds of his park, Jack’s ex-girlfriend Jo shows up, accompanied by a stranger who asks to use Jack's land as a cover for smuggling area illegal alien into the country--the clone of Che Guevara. As long-held secrets are revealed on the day of the festival, both Jack and Jo’s allegiances will be tried, and they will face difficult decisions about their family, and the future.

Thank you!