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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!