Interview with Teddy Durgin

TeddyDurginPicIf you missed my review of The Totally Gnarly Way Bogus Murder of Muffy McGregor by Teddy Durgin, you’ll have to check that out here.

1. I know you’ve been writing this one for a long time, so how long did it take you to write the first draft and then edit it into the final product?

I actually treated the book like I was making a movie. I had started novels before, gotten halfway or more into them, realized the stories weren’t quite working, and gave up. The old cliche. But with “Muffy,” I really knew I had something. I had pretty much the basics of the entire story in my head for years, and I didn’t want to screw it up. A good story really does seize you. It almost becomes a responsibility to tell!

So, I spent nearly six months before I even started writing the book plotting out each beat of the story, outlining each chapter, jotting down lines of dialogue and character exchanges I knew had to be in the novel in a notebook. So, by the time I was ready to “start production” — i.e., writing the first draft — I was totally ready. That was September 2015, and I finished the book in February, on President’s Day of this year. And then I spent the next three months in “post-production,” revising, tweaking, getting it proof-read (four minor typos still slipped through … aargh … but there’s always the 2nd edition in August).

2. Why self-publish? And are there plans for more with Sam, Chip, and Buddy?

I liken independent publishing in 2016 to where indie filmmaking was in the late 1980s and ’90s. With all of the consolidation going on in the publishing industry, all of the bricks-and-mortars stores closing, less risk-taking in general, some of the best and most daring work is not coming out of Random House or the other biggies. When I also saw the success some other authors I greatly admire who have gone this route were enjoying, both creatively and financially, it just seemed like the right way for me.

I am friends with Gus Russo, the best-selling, non-fiction crime author. One of his last books, “Boomer Days,” was published via CreateSpace and he raved about the process and the people involved. It was a niche book, very different from his previous titles like “The Outfit” and “Supermob.” But it became really successful, too. Then, when I saw the kind of numbers and the following authors like Patti Davis, mystery author M. Louisa Locke, and the very witty Jennifer Tress were attracting, I was 100-percent convinced.

Now, it has helped that I have been able to build off my own audience via my weekly film reviews that run in Teddy’s Takes, the East County Times in Baltimore, and ScreenIt.com, as well as my monthly column in the Maryland and Washington Beverage Journals. My readers’ support has gotten “Muffy” off to a great start!

As for turning this into a series, if I were to do another, I would pick a similar goofy title; probably keep the action in the ’80s in my hometown of Laurel, Md.; but introduce new characters. Some of the minor ones from “Muffy,” like the gossipy mall geezers Mel and Rodney, would cross over. But that would be about it. If I did a direct sequel, it would be set 20 years later with a grown-up Sam as a dad to a teenager who’s similarly flirting with danger.

3. How many times did you re-watch episodes of “Magnum P.I.” to get that scene just right with Rabinowitz, Sam, and Chip when they enter that office?

HA! No, that was all from memory. I’ve sworn over the years to my wife that somehow, some way I was going to make money on all of this “useless” ”70s and 80s pop culture trivia knowledge I have. Personally, I wish there was a purely ’80s cable TV channel. You really can’t find reruns of shows like “Magnum” or “Riptide” or “Remington Steele” anymore.

Follow-up question: Were you listening to all that 80s music you referenced in the acknowledgments on repeat while writing?

I would listen to those tunes before I would write to get me “in the zone.” I can’t listen to music while I type … not even abstracts.

4. How much of Sam Eckert is you? And are any of these characters based on real people? How do you meld fact and fiction?

It’s an old, OLD saying, but you really are most successful when you “write what you know.” Like Sam, I really did work as a 15-year-old stock boy at the Laurel Centre Mall’s 16 Plus clothing store for plus-sized women during the summer of 1986. Like Sam, I was a Lutheran attending the local Catholic High School. And, like Sam, I would get together with a couple of buddies whenever I could at the mall food court and talk flicks, pop music, bad TV, and we’d lament about our social status (or lack thereof). Unlike Sam, I am not a child of divorce, and I never lived in an apartment. He is also VERY different from me physically.

Most characters in the book have elements of people I knew growing up. But then I would add other quirks to them to make them their own people. Collette was my boss at 16 Plus, but she was not a former BBW supermodel. There really were about a half-dozen senior citizens who would gather at the mall each day and bust each other’s chops. And they knew EVERYTHING that went on in the mall. I condensed them down to Mel and Rodney. Rabinowitz is modeled more after my college journalism professor, Tom Nugent, than anyone. But Bernie Sanders was growing in popularity as I was writing the novel, and so I kept hearing his voice and tenor as I was writing Mervyn.

And then, I would just throw in last names and first names here and there of people I knew and grew up with to delight those who I hoped would one day read the book. In fact, I’ve actually had a few people e-mail me from my past who have asked, “Hey, why didn’t I make it in the book in some way?!” So, yeah, I am definitely going to have to do some kind of sequel or follow-up!

Laurel5. Now that you’ve moved out of Maryland into another state, did you find that you could finish the book more easily because you missed your former home?

Writing this book was actually a way to deal with whatever residual “homesickness” I was feeling for Maryland (and, uh, my lost youth). The Laurel of 2016 is VERY different from the Laurel of 1986. It’s silly to say, but I actually got to a point when I was still living in Maryland where I would kind of mourn all that had been lost and was no longer there in my hometown. The mall? Gone. Woolworth’s and its legendary lunch counter? Long gone. The Laurel Twin Cinema? It’s almost impossible for a two-screen theater to survive today. But it was wonderful to remember and “rebuild” each of these places again on the page.

6. Readers always want to know about writing routines, so did you have a specific time set aside to write this novel, as I know you have a full-time writing job and do other projects as well? How do you fit it all in?

I am one of those writers that absolutely has to compartmentalize pretty much all aspects of my life in order to be productive. I can’t mix and match. I never pen movie reviews during my day-job hours. I don’t write news articles immediately after coming back from a film premiere, when I really need to write about the movie I just saw while it’s fresh in my head.

But tackling a novel?! There was only one way that I could do it. Because I had plotted out the chapters and story beats so specifically for months, I would clock out of my day job on Friday afternoons, my family and I would go to a nice dinner (I never feel like cooking on a Friday), and then I would come home and write the novel until about 11 p.m. or midnight and then throughout the day on Saturday and parts of Sunday whenever I had a free hour or two.

My goal was one chapter a week. If I maintained that pace, I would have the planned 16 chapters done in 16 weeks. Well, it took me about 22 weeks with the holidays and various life happenings. But on the weekends, I would just bang it out. Rather than being tired from a week of writing and editing, it would energize me. I would look forward to writing “Muffy!” It actually became the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything!

One other thing that I don’t recommend, but I did it. I didn’t tell ANYONE! Not even my wife. It’s not uncommon to find me pounding away at the keyboard, writing at all hours of the day and evening. So, I never attracted any suspicion. I thought I would tell her at some point. But it was so much fun having a little secret, and I was really moving at a good pace. She was remarkably understanding when I finally told her I had finished it on President’s Day. Just to be safe, though, I told her in a crowded public restaurant!

7. I ask this question of all interviewees: Do you read poetry? If not, why? If so, Who or what collections would you recommend?

I don’t read as much poetry now as when I was young. I was an English major in college. And, I tell you, one of the most fun times I have EVER had was taking a 200-level summer Poetry course as an elective. Summer classes were a couple of times a week for six weeks, I recall. So, each of the classes was three hours long. And it was just bliss. We would read poetry, write poetry, read each other’s poetry, act out poems. It was the summer of 1989, and “Dead Poets Society” was a big movie that summer. It felt almost fourth-dimensional.

I did find I was not very good at writing poetry. But it was still so much fun. There was a real “intimacy” to that class and a few other summer writing courses I took over the years at UMBC that I still miss to this day. My favorite poet, by the way, will probably always be Dylan Thomas. “Do not go gentle into that good night!”

8. Did you read a lot of mysteries before writing this one, and do you have favorite mystery authors?

I read a LOT of Sherlock Holmes mysteries growing up. I had seen the 1939 Basil Rathbone-starring film “The Hound of the Baskervilles” when I was maybe 10 or 11 on Saturday morning TV (one of the DC-area UHF channels ran it) and then started checking out volumes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whenever it was “library day” at school. There was about a two- or three-year span where my teachers were, like, “Read someone else!”

Then, years later, Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did several Holmes-holodeck episodes, and I had a whole second “Sherlock” era.

First, I have to say, Dylan Thomas is awesome.  And Second, I cannot believe he didn’t tell his wife he was writing a novel until it was nearly done!

Thanks, Teddy, for this fantastic interview, and I wish you great success!

Interview with Jenetta James, Author of The Elizabeth Papers


Hello readers,
Welcome to today’s interview with Jenetta James, the author of The Elizabeth Papers.


About the book:

“It is settled between us already, that we are to be the happiest couple in the world.” —Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice

Charlie Haywood is a London-based private investigator who has made his own fortune—on his own terms. Charming, cynical, and promiscuous, he never expected to be attracted to Evie Pemberton, an emerging and independent-minded artist living with the aftermath of tragedy. But when he is hired to investigate her claims to a one hundred and fifty year old trust belonging to the eminent Darcy family, he is captivated.

Together they become entwined in a tale of love, loss, and mystery tracing back to the grand estate of Pemberley, home to Evie’s nineteenth century ancestors, Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy.

How could Evie know that in 1817 Elizabeth Darcy began a secret journal? What started as an account of a blissful life came to reflect a growing unease. Was the Darcy marriage perfect or was there betrayal and deception at its heart?

Can Evie and Charlie unearth the truth in the letters of Fitzwilliam Darcy or within the walls of present-day Pemberley? What are the elusive Elizabeth papers and why did Elizabeth herself want them destroyed?

Without further ado, please give Jenetta a warm welcome:

When did you first read Pride & Prejudice? And what about the story stuck with you enough to write The Elizabeth Papers?

I first read Pride & Prejudice in the autumn of 1995, when I was 13. The reason I can be so specific is that a school friend and I decided to read it whilst watching the now famous mini series which was on BBC 1 every Sunday evening for 6 weeks. Our goal was to read ahead of the TV programme. We didn’t quite get it right every episode, sometimes reading too far and sometimes not enough. For this reason, it was slightly disjointed, but we loved it none the less. Since then I have enjoyed re-reading the book many times.

The narrative arc of Pride & Prejudice is so simple and elegant and it is a really deft example of character revelation and development. For that reason I think it is a novel which inspires its readers to write – to try to live up to that standard. I also suspect that the number of novels inspired by Pride & Prejudice are many more than those that are openly promoted as such. It is the kind of book that when you read it you think “yes, that’s how you do it”.

When I wrote The Elizabeth Papers, I had already written one Pride & Prejudice variation story, Suddenly Mrs. Darcy. In both cases the basics of the story came to me in a bit of a flash. The Elizabeth Papers commences with a letter written by Mr. Darcy to his solicitor in 1860. When I am not writing, I am a practising barrister and so I have a tendency to pick up on the legal issues in books I read. I had in my mind the far reaching consequences of the entail on Longbourn in Pride & Prejudice and that is an idea that I have tried to play with in The Elizabeth Papers. I hope that readers enjoy it!

Many fans of Austen often do not like to read the Brontes. Do you read the Brontes and enjoy their work? If not, why?

I love the Brontes. I first read all of the novels as a teenager and then re-read Jane Eyre, which is my favourite in my early 20s. All of the Bronte novels are of course very different to Jane Austen, but I don’t see them as mutually exclusive in terms of enjoyment and value. Another favourite classic author is Thomas Hardy – I love his novels and especially the somewhat under-appreciated “Woodlanders”.

When working with someone else's beloved characters, what do you keep in mind when writing new stories for them? What are the challenges? advantages?

It is a real balancing act, and one I’m sure I have not yet perfected! On the one hand, I want the characters to be believable versions of the originals. So, I have to constantly check them against the originals, asking what would Elizabeth do here? What would she say? How would the character from the original have been changed by age and events?

The character features from the original act like a metronome, clicking away in the background, keeping me on track. On the other hand, I don’t want to be too straightjacketed about it and there is a danger of the quest for authenticity inhibiting creativity. I am striving for faithfulness but I want to tell a new story of my own creation as well. That is the challenge.

In The Elizabeth Papers, there are two halves to the story. In the Regency half, almost all of the characters are drawn from Pride & Prejudice. In the modern half, all of the characters are people who I have made up. I feel far more at liberty to do what I like with those characters that I do with Austen’s creations. So, I suppose that I have tried to have my cake and eat it in this department.

If you had to describe Mr. Darcy as readers know him, not as he is perceived by Elizabeth Bennet, what four words would you use and how did you come to chose those terms?

Honourable. This is the first word that jumped into my head when I read your question and it cuts through everything that he says and does in my view. His sense of honour is of course not appreciated by Elizabeth until very late in the day, but once it is understood, it is the glue that sticks his other characteristics together.

Reserved. This is very important in terms of how other people see him, including Elizabeth at the beginning of their story. He is basically rather introverted while Elizabeth is extraverted. I am a chronic introvert and so very ready to spot the same in others, real and fictional.

Romantic. Not to be underestimated although of course this is something that Austen suggests quite lightly and has been subsequently greatly embellished by readers (me included).

Observant. Mr. Darcy is a watcher, not a talker and he observes carefully everything that goes on around him. This, like his reserve, can be misconstrued.

Do you read poetry? Who or what collections would you recommend?

I’m afraid that I do not read poetry very often, and this question has inspired me to think about poetry which I have enjoyed in the past.

The last time I was a regular poetry reader was in my teens. I grew up in Cambridge and had a bit of a Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes thing going on for many years. I bought Birthday Letters on the day that it came out and still have it now. I also recall enjoying William Blake and T. S. Elliot. For A-Level, I studied John Donne and his work manages to be sexy, funny *and* 17th century. You have inspired me to go back and read it again.

I have 2 very little children and several of their favourite books are written in verse. My favourites are Bunny Fluff’s Moving Day by A. J. MacGregor and Appley Dapply by Beatrix Potter. I don’t think these is quite what you had in mind, but I do recommend them.

Thanks, Jenetta, for joining us today.

jjames headshotAbout the Author:

Jenetta James is the nom de plume of a lawyer, writer, mother and taker-on of too much. She grew up in Cambridge and read history at Oxford University where she was a scholar and president of the Oxford University History Society. After graduating, she took to the law and now practises full time as a barrister. Over the years she has lived in France, Hungary and Trinidad as well as her native England.

Jenetta currently lives in London with her husband and children where she enjoys reading, laughing and playing with Lego. Suddenly Mrs. Darcy was her first novel. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Interview with Paula Margulies, author of The Tao of Book Publicity

Book publicity is something book bloggers are well aware of these days, and even as many of us prefer to stick to reviews, many authors are relying on our blogs to get the word out about their books.

Paula Margulies, a publicist for more than two decades, has created a simple guidebook for authors, The Tao of Book Publicity.

About the Book: (GoodReads)

In The Tao of Book Publicity, publicist Paula Margulies outlines the basics of book promotion and explains how the business of publicizing a book works. Designed for beginning authors but also useful for those with some experience in book publishing, The Tao of Book Publicity provides information on the importance of writing a good book and the need for developing a platform, as well as how-to explanations for developing publicity material, including front and back cover text, press releases, Q&As, media and blog tour queries, and newsletter and media lists.

The Tao of Book Publicity also covers social media, book pricing and sales, book tours and media interviews, and author websites. In addition to explaining how book publicity works, this valuable handbook explores practical topics such as publicity costs, timing, and considerations when hiring a publicist.

Please give her a warm welcome.

You have been a book publicist for more than 25 years. What made you finally decide to write a guidebook on promotion for authors?

In the course of my publicity work, I’ve received calls from hundreds of authors, many of whom ask the same questions: When do I start my publicity campaign? How much should I plan to spend? Do I need a website? How do I build a platform? What price should I give my book? Do I have to use social media and,if so, which sites are best? Should I print a hardcover version, or will a paperback suffice? Do I need to enter contests? How can I get more reviews?

These are all important questions, and since so many authors seem to have the same concerns about their books, I decided to share what I’ve learned over the years as a publicist in one convenient, inexpensive resource guide.

The Tao of Book Publicity has a Zen look and feel to the cover and title. How does understanding the Tao principles help authors to promote their books?

I chose the Tao as a way of offering authors a practical philosophy on how they might approach book marketing. There are many authors who find promotion crass and time-consuming; a good majority would rather be writing than spending time trying to develop promotional material and schedules for themselves and their work. But I’ve found that book promotion can be a rewarding and fulfilling activity if done with the right perspective in mind.

As I describe in the book, most book publicity comes from a place of not-knowing; there are people we approach, for example, for reviews or interviews, but we cannot strong-arm those individuals into giving us what we want. Instead, we take the time to think about what our message is, who we are targeting with that message, and how to propose it in the most succinct, relevant, and motivating way we can. We then present our message (what most in my business call our “pitch”), and then follow-up with persistence to try to get a yes response. Our results are never guaranteed – it is up to the reporters or editors we contact to decide if the message we’re sharing is right for them. But when we come from a place of humility and unattachment, we tend to do a better job of both preparation (in which case, we usually achieve the goals we’re attempting) and managing our expectations.

What other aspects of book publicity to do you cover in the book?

I provide how-to explanations for developing publicity material, including front and back cover text, press releases, Q&As, media and blog tour queries, and newsletter and media lists. I also cover topics such as social media, book pricing and sales, book tours and media interviews, and author websites. In addition to explaining how book publicity works, I also discuss practical topics such as publicity costs, timing, and considerations when hiring a publicist; I’ve found that many authors want to know upfront about fees for services and what steps they should have completed before they contact a publicist like me.

If you have one piece of advice for new authors, what would it be?

That’s easy – write a good book!

Of course, that’s easier said than done. I’ve found that oftentimes authors, especially those who have chosen to self-publish, are in a rush to get their books out. In their hurry, they forgo important steps like work-shopping the book, spending time on revision, hiring a professional editor and cover designer, and developing their platforms. As a result, many of their books, sadly, don’t sell. If authors want their books to be well-received by booksellers, the media, and (most important) readers, they must take the time to carefully edit, polish, and package them well – there is no substitute for these steps in the publishing process.

Can you describe how an author might use this book as a guide to his or her own publicity plans?

Authors can read the chapters in any order they like (each chapter is designed to be read as stand-alone unit) and see what sounds as if it might be a good fit for them and their books. If something doesn’t sound right, they don’t have to use it. The information in the chapters is there to provide guidance and insight into what I believe are the common practices of most book publicists, but none of what’s there is meant to be a hard-and-fast prescription for any author’s individual book publicity plans.

Are you working on another book? If so, what can you tell us about it?

In addition to this latest book, I’m also the author of the short story collection, Face Value: Collected Stories, and two novels: Coyote Heart, which is a modern-day romance about a married woman who falls in love with a Pala Indian man, and Favorite Daughter, Part One, a first-person retelling of the life story of the famous Native American legend, Pocahontas. I’d like to get back to writing fiction and plan to spend the next year completing Part Two of Favorite Daughter.

Thanks, Paula, for spending time with us today.

Giveaway & Interview with Renée Beyea, author of Fine Stout Love

FSL Blog Tour Banner

Fine Stout Love and Other Stories by Renée Beyea is a collection of short stories based on Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and is part of the Pride & Prejudice Petite Tales series.  The second volume, What Love May Come and Other Stories, will be released winter 2016.

A Fine Stout Love.inddAbout the collection:

Discover what happens when Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy meet fancy and fantasy in this novella-length ensemble of Regency stories.

– What if two inexplicable trails of words led to the Meryton churchyard on the same blustery morning?
– What if Darcy stumbled across suggestive lines of verse following Elizabeth’s stay at Netherfield?
– What if a rumored engagement so thoroughly shocked Lady Catherine that she could not interfere?
– What if Elizabeth learned the last man she would ever marry was the only man she could marry?
– What if every Bennet family member read the love poem Darcy intended only for his bride?

With all the intimacy and lyricism of a chamber concert, these five whimsical shorts will inspire the heart, prompt a smile, and entice readers to many happy returns.

Intrigued? I know I am.

Please give Renée Beyea a warm welcome.

When did you first read Pride & Prejudice? And what about the story stuck with you enough to write short stories about Jane Austen’s characters?

Credit goes to my mom for introducing me to Emma in fourth grade. I fell in love with Mr. Knightley and devoured Jane Austen’s oeuvre–including Pride & Prejudice–within the next few years. Since I loved fairy tales as a child, Pride & Prejudice initially enthralled me as a grown-up version of Cinderella and an escape to what seemed like a fairy tale world. It wasn’t until the many re-readings in high school and college that I began to appreciate Austen’s light touch in sketching characters, her sparkling dialogue, and the subtlety of her wisdom, wit, and humor. Though each reading brings new insights, these qualities have stayed with me over the years.

After so many decades reading Pride & Prejudice–not to mention wheedling friends and family into countless movie viewings–what joy was mine to stumble into the world of Jane Austen fan fiction! I was introduced once again through my mom, this time to Persuasion from Captain Wentworth’s point of view in Susan Kaye’s None But You. Retellings and variations sparked my imagination, and that’s when I began writing the short pieces that comprise A Fine Stout Love and Other Stories. Though I don’t seek to emulate Austen’s voice, I do strive to employ era-appropriate language and to honor those qualities I appreciated from the first–her canon characters, fresh dialogue, subtle humor, and naturally, a dash of fairy tale romance.

Many fans of Austen often do not like to read the Brontes.  Do you read the Brontes and enjoy their work? If not, why?

I do read and enjoy the Brontes, though not all of their works. Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are on my re-read list. Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey, still languishes in my TBR pile. Charlotte’s Shirley and The Professor have yet to sufficiently pique my interest. As for Charlotte’s Villette and Emily’s Wuthering Heights, I’m prepared to admire them from a literary perspective, but I find them too dark, depressing, and disturbing to expect much pleasure from repeat visits. My approach to the Brontes’ novels is similar to how my husband and I approach movies. We enjoy diverse genres and savor a good drama, but for repeat viewing, nine times out of ten we’ll choose romantic comedy or action adventure. The Brontes’ works are dramas; Austen’s are romantic comedy.

Since I’m on a roll with comparisons… Comparing Austen and the Brontes is like comparing an airy chiffon pie with a dense flourless cake. Both delicious but for contrasting attributes. Or in terms of art, the Brontes paint with oils, layer upon layer of light and shadow skillfully executed–not unlike Helen Huntingdon’s talent in Wildfell Hall. By contrast, Austen sketches no less skillfully but provides just enough to tell the story and to color casts of enchanting characters. Austen leaves more to the imagination. She doesn’t indulge in lengthy moralizations or detailed descriptions. We don’t know what Longbourn house looks like, let alone Elizabeth Bennet, save for her beautiful dark eyes and light and pleasing figure. As a reader, I enjoy both methods, but as a writer, it’s Austen’s works that invite variations.

When working with someone else’s beloved characters, what do you keep in mind when writing new stories for them?  What are the challenges? advantages?

Austen variations come in as many flavors as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Some authors tweak the plot, some the characters, and some both. Each change is located along a spectrum of minor to major. Of course, every Austen reader will happily defend her or his favorite flavor–sometimes quite ardently. Where do I fall on this spectrum? As a reader, I can appreciate a fairly wide variety. As an author, I endeavor to keep the characters within the social mores and moral values of Austen’s milieu as well as in step with how she wrote them. Or at least in step with how I interpret her characterization, knowing full well readers will debate ceaselessly a range of interpretation.

Perhaps the greatest advantage to borrowing someone else’s characters is that they already exist in readers’ imaginations. Isn’t this in large part what fuels the seemingly insatiable appetite for Austen retellings and variations? Readers covet more time with the characters they’ve come to know and love. Names like Elizabeth, Darcy, and Mrs. Bennet serve as a kind of shorthand to their back stories and character traits. I’ve found this to be a tremendous boon in writing short fiction. A short story’s limited length and tight construction place relatively greater weight on each word choice, and I need not spend words introducing the cast. This also means readers are more swiftly immersed with beloved characters as they are plunged into new circumstances.

As is often the case, the corollary presents the greatest challenge. Because reader expectations already exist along a range of interpretation, those expectations are destined to be either satisfied or disappointed in a way that original characters are less apt to incite. Then there’s the challenge and limitation of creating characters consistent with the originals. Does Elizabeth speak and act with that “mixture of sweetness and archness” that makes it difficult to affront anybody, or does she cross the line into harshness or cruelty? Is Jane “firm where she feels herself to be in the right,” or does her gentleness make her seem a pushover? Austen had the advantage of writing when narrative, exposition, and omniscient narrators were de rigueur, but the burden is on today’s authors to show these subtle distinctions.

If you had to describe Mr. Darcy as readers know him, not as he is perceived by Elizabeth Bennet, what four words would you use and how did you come to choose those terms?

Only four words? You drive a hard bargain! One beauty of Austen’s writing is her restraint in Darcy’s portrayal, which only multiplies his mystique. Readers and Austen-inspired authors have the irresistible gratification of completing the picture, and we do so with an endless variety of media. Below are the four words that best capture my mental image. I’d love to hear which four words your readers would choose…

Proud:  Darcy is sometimes justified as shy and misunderstood, but Austen leaves little room for doubt that Darcy enters the story as proud and haughty. He takes pride in his heritage, his family, his station in society, his estate. As Charlotte says, he has an excuse to be proud. Really, can we blame him? Perhaps we wouldn’t blame him at all if his pride were as properly regulated as Darcy assures Elizabeth it is. We can laugh, even if Elizabeth does not, at the irony and his unwitting hypocrisy. Darcy’s pride continues to surface in the superiority of his perceptions and interactions–at least until we meet him again at Pemberley, having been properly humbled by Elizabeth’s refusal and learned his lesson.

Reserved:  While I won’t grant Darcy a pass for being shy and misunderstood, Austen does tell us he’s reserved, his manners are uninviting, and he’s continually giving offense. She sketches Darcy in contrast to his good friend. Bingley is effusive, gregarious, and charming–everyone’s a friend. Darcy on the other hand stands about and doesn’t care to dance or even to make small talk with people he doesn’t know. He explains himself to Elizabeth as not possessing such social skill. Only in his own circles, among his intimates, and at Pemberley does Darcy become less reserved. And on those lovely long rambles with Elizabeth near the end, her easy playfulness begins to soften his reserve, which only serves to whet readers’ appetites for more.

Reflective:  When Darcy is quiet, Austen frequently shows him watching and observing, or readers can reasonably make that inference. Darcy watches Elizabeth. He watches Jane’s interaction with Bingley. He observes the Bennet family’s behavior. He watches Collins tread on Elizabeth’s toes and his cousin Fitzwilliam flirt with her. Darcy does all this watching, but no matter what Elizabeth may think, the reader knows it’s not a vacuous stare. Austen tells us that Darcy is clever and boasts superior powers of understanding. So in those long silences his clever mind is occupied evaluating everything he observes and drawing conclusions. Not always accurate conclusions, mind. He determines that Elizabeth favors him while Jane doesn’t favor Bingley. Oops. But confronted with Elizabeth’s rejection, Darcy’s clever mind once again engages in reflecting on what she said, painful though her words are. And this time he determines that he’s the one who needs to change. That’s our hero.

Principled:  Late in the book, Darcy tells Elizabeth that he was “given good principles but left to follow them in pride and conceit.” But before we hear this confession from his mouth, we see Darcy’s principles in action. He honors the spirit of his father’s wishes for Wickham without violating his better informed conscience. Mrs. Reynolds confirms Darcy is conscientious in the management of his estate and respected by his tenants and servants. Darcy is committed to his sister’s care and earns consistent high praise for his efforts there. He’s a faithful friend. Misguided and influenced by selfish motives though Darcy may be, he still seeks to protect Bingley from a marriage of unequal affection. He abhors disguise and endeavors to correct Elizabeth’s misapprehensions. And Darcy owns it himself that he intervenes with Lydia and Wickham because he has Elizabeth’s interests at heart. Honor, integrity, selflessness, and generosity to name a few–what woman would not be won by the love of a tall, handsome, rich man motivated by such principles?

Do you read poetry?  Who or what collections would you recommend?

I do read poetry, though not as much as I did before children. Somehow the raucous joy of boys rocketing through my home isn’t particularly conducive to reflection. These days I treat poetry like espresso. When I need a quick shot, it’ll usually be old friends from the classics. Shakespeare’s sonnets are well-thumbed. I’m a huge fan of John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and both find passing reference in the first two volumes of my Pride & Prejudice Petite Tales. Sometimes I’m in the mood for the Brownings, Keats, or Dickinson. These poets also inspired the verses I wrote for A Fine Stout Love and Other Stories–poems with more traditional form, meter and rhyme, and thus more apt to have been composed by Elizabeth or Darcy.

In terms of contemporary poets, several of Jane Kenyon’s slim volumes populate my shelves. Let Evening Come moves me every time–I feel her words like sunset on an evening breeze. And while it’s not poetry, Annie Dillard’s prose in Holy the Firm and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is often sublime and poetic. Her striking imagery, rich metaphors, and lyrical voice impact me like verse. I likewise relish applying poetic sensibility to writing prose fiction.

As for current poets, if the poet dances words onto the page and the reader dances them off, then occasionally I accept the invitation and take new verses for a turn about the room. Regretfully, it’s rarely long enough to find new favorites. So I’m not in a position to make recommendations, save to affirm experimenting, reading broadly, and sampling everything. In fact, Savvy Verse & Wit provides an excellent resource to do just that (thank you, thank you!). My taste may be to waltz and another’s may be to salsa, but you never know when you will chance into the perfect combination of words that makes your soul dance.

Thank you so much, Serena, for hosting me at Savvy Verse & Wit, stimulating my thoughts with your insightful questions, and for participating in the blog tour for A Fine Stout Love and Other Stories.

International giveaway: (8 books, including up to 4 paperback)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Renee Beyea (author)About the Author:

Renée Beyea holds an undergraduate writing degree from Taylor University and a Master of Divinity from Fuller Seminary. She serves as full-time wife, mother to two sons, and ministry partner with her husband, an Anglican priest and chaplain. Her free time is devoted to crafting stories and composing poetry that delight the senses and touch the soul. Connect with her on Facebook.

Interview with Nadia Gerassimenko

National Poetry Month is in full swing, and I have a great interview with Nadia Gerassimenko for you today, and she’s sharing a poem with us as well.

She also was kind enough to post some of my own poems on her website. Feel free to check them out.

I hope you give her a warm welcome; she’s a stunning poet.

When did you know you were a poet and what has kept you writing?

I began writing since I was 14. I didn’t think of myself as a poet at that time, more like writing poetry was a form of creative expression that was easiest for me to deliver and let out. I was writing poems quite frequently until my early twenties. I was in a rut after that. I remember that period in my life had been the most overwhelming for me psychologically—trying to finish my Bachelor’s degree, working at the same time, figuring out my health issues, healing emotional hurts, and finding myself and my inner peace. It was very shaky. I just couldn’t express myself as freely as I had as a teenager. But fortunately, it was temporary. Life calmed down a bit in some aspects and at the same time I became better at managing pain and stress.

Though I do not write as often as I would like to nowadays, I feel that my creative stream is limitless and ever flowing. I’m not afraid that it will ever run out or that I may experience another writer’s block. I feel like it may happen, but I don’t let it get to me. Only when I turned 26 did I truly start considering myself a poet. It happened when I began working on my second chapbook a chair, a monologue that I started to feel truly proud of what I’m creating and slowly accomplishing. It’s not just spur of the moment kind of writing. There’s deliberate intention and planning involved. I want to let my pain out in such a way that not only does it mean something to me, but that it also touches someone else.

Some of the poems I’ve written for the book are okay, but they won’t end up in the final pages because they’re missing that raw, visceral and blunt but candid feeling I’m trying to pour out. Whilst there are those that will be in the book because I’ve written them with utmost care and preparation, edited them to perfection or to something that I’m fully satisfied with. I’ve asked other fellow poets and friends such as yourself to look over them and provide me with constructive feedback which has helped me tremendously to see it from an objective point of view, not just through my sometimes biased lens.

What are your favorite elements of poetry?

I love poems that experiment with structure where there are gaps between words or lines or verses. Not only are they lovely aesthetically, they also shape the poem into the main theme or create a feeling of tumbling down or a pause or silence. I also enjoy poems that don’t necessarily rhyme but that have flowing rhythm to them like in classical poetry. I think it’s quite an achievement when someone can write a piece that doesn’t use a patterned rhyming scheme but is still musical nonetheless. Also words that create euphony or even cacophony can enhance poetry to a different level, more experiential if you will.

List a few of your favorite poetry magazines?

I recently discovered Sea Foam Magazine, which I simply adore. Aside from poetry, they publish interesting interviews with artists, showcase gorgeous artwork. It’s a very dreamy, whimsical kind of literary magazine but also quite frank and unabashed. I also love The Writing Garden founded and run by a dear friend Suzy Hazelwood. She publishes poems and prose and mixed media by artists at all levels of their craftsmanship. Each issue is visually divine and is sometimes themed on purpose or coincidentally gathers beautiful works reflecting the same subject matter. I think it’s rather endearing and serendipitous when that happens. I love poetry curated by Luna Luna Magazine. It’s quite inventive, edgy, primeval.

What advice would you give to poets crafting their first collections?

I would say if you have an idea in mind, plan it all out, do some research if needed. Whether it be a poetry collection or a themed chapbook; whether you want to self-publish it or publish it with a small press; whether you want to edit it yourself or hand it over to a professional—those things are unavoidable and must be planned out and executed. Still don’t let that discourage you from writing but don’t just wander off when doing so.

Who are some of your favorite poets?

I don’t really have favorite poets amongst the greats while I do appreciate what they’ve contributed to our society. I do feel that my poet friends really inspire and empower me to work harder at my writing. And being able to turn to them for writing criticism is an honor and a blessing. Kate Bush influences my writing quite a bit. While not necessarily considered a poet in the conventional sense of the word, Kate Bush’s music and lyrics are rather poetic. Her work is so multifarious and enigmatic. It’s simply spellbinding.


Nadia Gerassimenko is a Media Relations Manager for Yeti Culture and Assistant Editor at Luna Luna Magazine by day, a moonchild and poet by night. Nadia self-published her first poetry collection Moonchild Dreams (2015) and hopes to republish it traditionally. She’s currently working on her second chapbook a chair, a monologue. Visit her at tepidautumn.net or tweet her at @tepidautumn.

Safe cocoon

Mama, I heard you and papa fighting today.
I couldn’t pick up on the words again,
But you were screaming, he was yelling.

Something shattered.
Something banged.
And you cried.

Mama, I haven’t heard papa’s voice in a while.
He used to read to me and his voice soothed me to sleep.
Now all I hear is your sad lullaby.

Whatever day.
Whatever hour.
You cry.

Mama, what is that reeking? What are you drinking, too?
What an unusual smell engulfing.
And it feels so hot all of a sudden.

I’m gasping for air.
I'm dazed and confused.
You laugh and cry.

Mama, what are you swallowing so fast?
It tastes so powdery and bitter.
My fragile tummy doesn’t agree.

I feel so sick.
So sleepy.
You stop crying.

Mama, it’s safe and warm in your cocoon.
As I fall deeply asleep,
I thank you for keeping me nestled.

Breathing in and out.
First heartbeats and last.
We sleep together.

Interview with Arne Weingart

I reviewed Arne’s collection Levitation for Agnostics in February, and was really impressed by his poems. He agreed to take part in the National Poetry Month celebration with an interview. Please give him a warm welcome.

1. Faith is a big part of your poems. How has that faith informed the poems in the collection Levitation for Agnostics?

It was never my intention to use faith as an organizing principle for the collection. But if I look at the book as a whole, I can see how individual poems tend to circle around the question of what one can or should believe in. I accept the idea that the need for belief is biologically hard-wired into human nature, so for me, certain things follow. Firstly, that organized religion is useful but inadequate. Secondly, that poetry and art are useful (although ultimately also inadequate)in addressing our collective spiritual need. This particular point of view is a kind of background noise for every poem I try to write.

2. Faith and religion can be very serious aspects of people’s lives, how does the humor you infuse your poems with change that perspective?

The difference between our very real and persistent spiritual needs and our success in satisfying them is the perfect set-up for a joke. Many jokes. Take my faith tradition, please (drum roll, rim shot)! In Judaism’s classical orthodox flavor, there are said to be 613 commandments that govern human conduct. However noble in conception, this is an obvious recipe for failure. And while attempts at “reformation” are laudable and inevitable, the gap between spirit and material world remains. I suppose you could define grace as our ability to balance within that gap; and humor as our appropriate response when grace fails us.

3. Levitation for Agnostics looks to be a first collection for you? How else do you spend your creative hours? Is poetry your first passion?

Yes, this is my first collection. Although I work in a “creative” field — graphic design — poetry is the one thing I am most capable of doing that satisfies my creative impulse. As mentioned above, I believe that poetry (and all art) has spiritual underpinnings that make it indispensable, if often misunderstood.

4. What advice would you give to poets crafting their first collections?

Write without particular focus on shaping a collection. At some point, stop and see what you’ve got. This will require help from other readers (and perhaps writers). This is in direct contradiction to many thematically coherent collections that began and ended as “projects” and that seem to be “about” something that can be concisely and confidently stated. First collections, however, should probably address the concerns of crafting an identifiable poetic voice, the one indispensable qualification for a poet, going forward.

5. Who are your favorite poets?

In no particular order and on this particular day: W. H. Auden, Wislawa Szymborska, W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, Elizabeth Bishop, Tony Hoagland

About the Poet:

Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, and educated at Dartmouth College and Columbia University, Arne Weingart lives in Chicago with his wife Karen, where he is the principal of a graphic design firm specializing in identity and wayfinding. Recent poems have been published in Arts & Letters, Beecher’s Magazine, Coal Hill Review, Enizagam, Nimrod, Oberon, Plume, RHINO, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Georgetown Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The Spoon River Poetry Review. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and his book, “Levitation For Agnostics,” winner of the 2014 New American Press Poetry Prize, will be released in February, 2015.


Interview with Kimberly Knutsen

As the holidays continue to approach, and things have gotten a bit off schedule in my house – at least reading wise — the forthcoming posts are expected to a bit more haphazard in topic than I would prefer.

Today, I have an interview with the author of The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath, Kimberly Knutsen.

About the Book from GoodReads:

Set in the frozen wasteland of Midwestern academia, The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath introduces Wilson A. Lavender, father of three, instructor of women’s studies, and self-proclaimed genius who is beginning to think he knows nothing about women. He spends much of his time in his office not working on his dissertation, a creative piece titled “The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath.” A sober alcoholic, he also spends much of his time not drinking, until he hooks up with his office mate, Alice Cherry, an undercover stripper who introduces him to “the buffer”—the chemical solution to his woes.

Wilson’s wife, Katie, is an anxious hippie, genuine earth mother, and recent PhD with no plans other than to read People magazine, eat chocolate, and seduce her young neighbor—a community college student who has built a bar in his garage. Intelligent and funny, Katie is haunted by a violent childhood. Her husband’s “tortured genius” both exhausts and amuses her.

Please give Ms. Knutsen a warm welcome:

Why Sylvia Plath? What is it about her that intrigued you to incorporate her journals into your novel?

As a writer, I was intrigued by the many facets of Plath’s personality: the good girl in Letters Home; the funny, snarky coed in the journals; the cool primeval persona of the Ariel poems; Esther, so mean and desperate and sad in The Bell Jar. The characters in The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath—Wilson, his wife Katie, and her sister January—are also fractured due to childhood trauma and addiction. No matter how hard they try, they are unable to truly connect with another.

As far as the journals go, Wilson is rewriting Plath’s lost journals—the ones that went missing or were destroyed after her death—as his doctoral dissertation. A popular instructor of women’s studies who is beginning to think he knows nothing about women, he is bravely co-opting the voice of a fellow “tortured genius.” There’s just one catch: He spends most of his time not writing, and by mid-novel has come up with just one line: “Felt like singing today!”

What is your favorite Sylvia Plath poem and why?

I love “Elm.” The tree is magnificent in its dying. The imagery captures the fury and violence and horrifying beauty of life: “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets./ Scorched to the root/ My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.” Love it! “Elm” contains one of my favorite lines, which I used as an epigraph in my novel Violet: “Love is a shadow./ How you lie and cry after it.”

Have you written poetry? Why or why not.

I teach an introductory course in poetry and often do the exercises with the students, and I can say with authority that I am definitely not a poet, although my writing—the language and rhythm—can be very poetic. I’m always amazed at the work my college students produce. They have so much primal energy, and the key is to just help them harness it.

I did publish one poem in Hoot: http://www.hootreview.com/. They print poems on postcards, and provide audio of the poets reading on the website. I think my poem was a total of thirty words, and I must have spent hours recording myself reading it aloud in this strange, breathy voice. As soon as I pushed record on the phone, I’d panic and freeze: no inhalation, no exhalation. Just dumb, stunned silence. And then the voice. Like if a balloon could form words. Barely.

Work/Life balance is tough as a mother, can you offer any advice that has worked for you as an author, professor, and mother? What are your thoughts about women who want to take it all on and fail?

That’s an interesting question. We never ask men this question: How do you balance work and fatherhood? It’s a given that work is important and fatherhood will fall into place naturally.

Mothers, however, have impossible standards to live up to. We are responsible for every horrible thing our children do. We’re the life-givers and the destroyers. If our child is an addict, well, we must have enabled them by loving them too much, or else we traumatized them by not loving them enough. Working mothers come home from work and dive into the second shift—laundry, dishes, grocery shopping, the cat litter box—and a, we better not complain, and b, we better look good doing it.

With that said, I love being a mom. To me, motherhood is life (and I fully recognize that this is not necessarily true for others, nor should it be). I find that bitching and complaining is a great way to blow off steam and keep myself sane. I highly recommend it.

My advice for working mothers/writers: Create. If you can only write for twenty minutes in the bathroom while one child takes a bath and the other unrolls the entire roll of toilet paper, do it. I wrote my entire 570-page dissertation in coffee shops, and sometimes even in my car parked in a church parking lot, while paying a babysitter for those two hours of freedom. If you are blessed with artistic gifts, let them blossom. A silent writer is a life half lived, and a writer who writes is able to live life twice. Create teeny-tiny poems. Type them on a postcard. Record yourself reading them aloud. Don’t forget to breathe!

A final word on housekeeping. As a mom, I try to block out media messages that tell me how perfect my children and home and teeth and boobs should be. Where did this idea of having a showplace home come from? When I was a kid growing up in the 70s, houses were just houses, with the same pictures on the walls, year in and year out, and the same 1970s brown shag carpet, the same old furniture, the same old Tupperware. Nothing was fancy and nothing changed—not even the meals. I try to keep my home 70s style: clean enough, but certainly not pristine or fancy. There’s still the horrible carpet the elderly dog dribbles on and the mini-blinds that you all of a sudden realize are really disgusting. But how much does it matter in the end?

It’s not life or death. Dirty mini-blinds are not life or death. Creating, living life authentically, loving and helping others—this is what matters. Dirty mini-blinds and old carpet are way down on the list. (But you can see how much these mini-blinds are bothering me!)

How many writing projects do you work on at one time? Do you outline? What other practices did you learn at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?

The most important thing I learned at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was how to be an advocate for myself and my writing. Before you go, you’re usually the “star” of your writing program, and all the professors love you and you win all the awards, and you think you’re some kind of literary goddess! Riiight. Then you get to Iowa and you learn pretty quickly that everyone is a “star” and nobody thinks you or your writing are anything special, and you’re really nobody, and it’s a huge blow to your ego.

I loved when Hannah on Girls went to Iowa because it’s exactly like that: She got there and everyone hated her and her work, and there’s always one guy with three names, like Ethan Phillip Thomas, who all the professors love, and he’s the one that gets the agent and the book deal while still in the program, and wins the Michener award and the Stegner award, and this guy with the three names, this E.P.T., is definitely not you! As a writer, you can either crumble and quit or keep writing. Not for the attention and the awards and the praise, but for yourself, because you are a writer and writers write. Period.

At Iowa, I learned about rejection and disinterest, which is 99.9 percent of a writer’s life. But as I’ve said before, you only need one yes, so keep writing!

Oh, and to answer the question: I usually obsess about just one project at a time, and I do create a crazy, color-coded outline, but only near the end of the revision process. I go through each chapter and note symbols, themes, motifs, character arcs, etc. The outline is bright and colorful and shows how brilliant our subconscious minds are, and how clunky and obvious and downright dumb our conscious minds can be.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today.

Interview with Kate Kerrigan

Kate Kerrigan is the author of Ellis Island, City of Hope, and Land of Dreams — a series of books I loved! She has two new books coming out The Miracle of Grace and Recipes for a Perfect Marriage.  Please give her a warm welcome today.

KerriganMiracleAbout The Miracle of Grace:

Grace’s mother Eileen is a great list maker, so when Grace walks into Eileen’s kitchen to drop off a postal package and sees her garish ‘To Do’ pad on the counter, she thinks nothing of it, until she sneaks a look. There, at No 8, ranked in importance well below bread, telephone bill and bins is ‘Tell G I have ovarian cancer, probably terminal’. Grace goes into shock, primarily at the thought that her mother is dying, but also at the fact that her mother simply couldn’t tell her to her face. Is their relationship really so bad?

Eileen has been brought up in rural Ireland in the 1950s, in thrall to the rules of her community – church first, then husband, then children. So she’s had little time for herself and even now finds it impossible to put her own problems and desires to the fore. It is only when Grace confronts her, that she is able to go back over her past, to her own childhood, her early marriage, and the birth of her cherished only daughter to find memories of happiness and unbearable tragedy that have coloured her life forever.

kerriganRecipesAbout Recipes for a Perfect Marriage:

Successful New York food writer Tressa Nolan has a great life — wonderful friends, a gorgeous apartment, and of course fabulous food — but the idea of turning forty alone scares her, so she marries the next man who asks: Dan, her building’s super. He’s handsome and he adores her, but soon after the wedding Tressa regrets her decision. Everything from Dan’s unsophisticated interests to his enormous (and intrusive) Irish-American family sets her teeth on edge. Why couldn’t she have the perfect marriage her grandparents had? What Tressa doesn’t know — what she only discovers when she reads her Grandma Bernadine’s journal-cum- recipe book — is that she’s following in Bernadine’s footsteps, and like all the best recipes, a perfect marriage calls for a long, slow simmer.

How do you come up with your ideas? Are they character or concept driven?

A bit of both. The concept comes first – but then once the characters present themselves and start to develop depth as they do in those early chapters, the story becomes theirs and they drive the narrative absolutely.

You often have dual timelines. Why is that? What is it about historical fiction that interests you so much?

I am fascinated by how the differences in our historical circumstances shape who we are and how we behave — especially in the way it affects our emotional landscapes. Stoicism, for instance, has gone way out of fashion as a way of being — yet it was a way of life for so many women, for so long — forced into unhappy marriages by religion for or utterly financially dependent on men they did not love. Yet — so much of what was good about value systems in the past: loyalty, a strong sense of identity, and place — still hold true today. I love drawing comparisons between how things were and how they are now and showing how while history may alter our circumstances, in the most real, important sense human beings never fundamentally change.

For all the freedom and money history has given us women in the western world — are we any happier now than our grandmothers were?

What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

Starting and finishing: one week at either end. Finishing is best. Honestly? The rest is pretty much just hard work: I write out of a compulsion to tell the story not because I enjoy the act of writing itself. The longer I do it – the less I feel I know about writing and the harder it gets! I get very close to my characters and I cry a lot. It’s an emotional rollercoaster — and I am always a bit sad to get off at the end — but relieved too.

Describe a typical day as a writer.

On a good day, I go into my accountants office, work from 9-5 and get 1,500 words written — this is what I intend every working day to be. However most days, I go into my accountants office, work from 9-5 and get 500 words written and know it’s not enough. On a bad day I get distracted by life. I chase around shopping, collecting kids, doing hideous admin., having lunch with my mother – I get nothing written and get whipped up into a state of blind panic at not having written anything. I have a lot of bad days.

Which authors inspire you?

People who write from the heart: Marian Keyes, Patrick McCabe – a lesser known but brilliant Irish writer called Frank Ronan. Probably the biggest influences over my lifetime as a reader and writer have been Agatha Christie for plot and PG Wodehouse for his vocabulary and use of language.  I never read historical fiction — I don’t have the confidence! However — for pleasure and relaxation I rarely read anything other than contemporary thrillers — David Balducci is my current thrill!

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Just write, write, write – don’t be discouraged and keep going. Writing is 1% talent and 99% hard work and tenacity. I found writing groups and courses fantastic in my pre-published days. It’s not always easy to motivate yourself and a good writing group can really give you the encouragement and support you need.

What do you hope readers will take away from your books?

Identification with the characters and at least one lesson they can relate to their own lives.

Thanks so much, Kate, for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on dual narratives, your favorite authors, and writing.

Interview: A Conversation with Juliette Wells for 200th Anniversary of Emma

Juliette Wells is the editor and introducer of EMMA: 200th-Anniversary Annotated Edition (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; on-sale September 29, 2015; 9780143107712; $16.00). Please give her a warm welcome.

When we celebrate the 200th anniversary of EMMA, what in particular are we celebrating? What’s new about this edition?

We’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of Emma’s original publication, in London in December, 1815. The date of publication is a little confusing because “1816” was printed on the title page of the first edition of the novel, but it was actually released in December, 1815. I think this gives us the right to celebrate for a whole year!

And what better way to celebrate than to re-read Emma, or read it for the first time? Our 200th-anniversary annotated edition has everything you need, all in one place, to help you appreciate this wonderful novel. You can immerse yourself in Austen’s world and also have, right at your fingertips, explanations of some of the elements of the novel that tend to trip up or puzzle today’s readers.

In the Austen canon, what would you say makes EMMA special and unique?

Emma is special because it’s the capstone of Austen’s career as an author. She had already published three novels (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park), and she was at the very top of her game as a writer. She didn’t know it, of course, but Emma would be the last book she saw through to publication. When Austen died in July 1817, she left two essentially completed novels (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion), which her brother published at the end of that year. So Emma is the last Austen novel that was published in the exact form that she herself approved.

Emma is also special because it’s the most perfect example of Austen’s particular genius as an author, which is (I think) to create a recognizable, engaging fictional world from the slenderest of materials. She writes about everyday life and ordinary people—you won’t find kings and queens in her novels, or ghosts or vampires. Her effects are wonderfully subtle.

What was the publishing process like when EMMA was first published? How was the novel received critically? Was Austen as popular in her own day as she is today?

The publishing process was recognizable in some ways and very different in others. Austen didn’t have a literary agent; at that time, authors dealt directly with publishers. With Emma, she chose a new, more prestigious publisher—John Murray—than she had used for her three earlier novels, and she negotiated hard for a good contract with him. As authors are today, Austen was responsible for proofreading and approving copy before publication. Since being a published author was considered not so respectable for an unmarried woman, Austen chose to remain anonymous on her title pages throughout her lifetime. Emma identifies her as “the author of Pride and Prejudice.” Her identity wasn’t made publicly known until after her death.

Like Austen’s earlier novels, Emma was praised by reviewers, who appreciated Austen’s ability to convey a very realistic fictional world. Austen wasn’t a bestseller in her day; then as now, thrillers, adventure stories, and romances outsold quiet literary fiction. But Austen did have the satisfaction of knowing, in her lifetime, that readers appreciated her work. In addition to reading reviews, she kept track of the responses of her friends and family, which offer a wonderful glimpse into what everyday readers of Austen’s own time thought of Emma. Some of what they liked and didn’t like may be very familiar to us!

One of your specialties as a professor of English is how Jane Austen’s work continues to appeal to people, how it remains at the forefront of pop culture conversation. Last year, Alexander McCall Smith updated EMMA, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” hits the big screen in 2016, and movie and TV versions of Austen continue to draw viewers. Why do you think we keep updating and adapting Austen? What are your favorite adaptations or updates, and what makes them successful?

Austen really is endlessly adaptable, much like Shakespeare! You can transpose her stories and her characters to other places and times, and they still work. My own favorite creation inspired by Austen is Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, from 1995. Clueless is a joy to experience, and smart too, much like an Austen novel.

I’m also a big fan of Sense and Sensibility, also from 1995, for which Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay. Experiencing Austen through the eyes of a witty, thoughtful contemporary woman—it doesn’t get any better than that! I like Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club, from 2004, for the same reason—an experienced writer chooses to think about how Austen’s works matter to us today, and takes us along for the ride. Lost in Austen, the British miniseries from 2008, is also a big favorite of mine. A rabid Austen fan finds her way into the world of Pride and Prejudice and messes it up. It’s a hoot to see the Austen characters we know so well doing and saying things that they NEVER would have done or said in the original novel.

I think TV and movie adaptations of Austen are so popular for two main reasons. They’re beautiful to watch, no question. And they offer a respite—which a lot of people of all ages value—from the loud, fast, scary, stuff that much of mainstream entertainment is these days. The tricky part comes, sometimes, when someone knows and loves Austen through the films and then goes to pick up one of the novels, only to discover that the reading experience is a lot more complex and challenging than the viewing experience. I had those first-time readers of Austen very much in mind when creating this new edition of Emma.

What is it like to prepare a new edition of a book that’s so well-known and exists in many editions? What kind of research did you do? Did anything you learned during the process surprise you?

It was really important to me to create a truly new approach to Emma—a welcoming, reader-friendly approach. Excellent editions of Emma already exist for scholars and for devoted “Janeites.” With this anniversary edition, I wanted to open Austen up to people who hadn’t given her a try before, and to support their reading experience by using everything I know from years of teaching undergraduates and from talking with everyday readers. I certainly reached for plenty of scholarly and reference sources on my shelves, but I’d say my most important preparation was to have built up, over time, a sense of what readers are curious about and what frustrates them in their first encounter with an Austen novel. And, through my teaching, I’ve had a lot of practice at explaining historical concepts in an accessible way.

I also had the huge pleasure of re-reading Emma myself, slowly, with pencil in hand, making lists of topics to cover in my contextual essays and marking words that would likely be unfamiliar to present-day Americans. By doing this, I developed a much deeper appreciation of Austen’s artistry with words. This surprised and delighted me—I would have said I appreciated her artistry plenty before! But it wasn’t until I was trying to figure out how to convey the meaning of a particular phrase that I realized how much meaning she packs in with her clever, economical word choices.

Thinking about readers’ experience with Emma also shaped how the contextual material is presented in this new edition. In my experience, many ordinary readers, and even college students too, are put off by footnotes, or at best ignore them. So we decided instead to group topics together in contextual essays, which are easier—and, I hope, more fun—to read. Here too my experience explaining historical concepts And, there’s no question, the gorgeous cover by Dadu Shin is a beautiful invitation to pick up this Emma!

The illustrations for this edition are drawn from historical copies of Emma in the Jane Austen Collection at Goucher College, where you teach. Can you tell us more about that collection? What is it, exactly?

The Jane Austen Collection at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland began as the passion project of an alumna of the college from the 1920s, Alberta Hirshheimer Burke. Alberta loved, loved, loved Jane Austen’s writings and decided that her own purpose in life was to gather as much material as possible relating to Austen. So Alberta bought first and rare editions and even some manuscripts—such as letters in Austen’s handwriting—all of which she felt brought her closer to her beloved author. The images in our new edition reproduce turn-of-the-twentieth century illustrations of Emma by English and American artists, from books that Alberta owned, and which she bequeathed to her alma mater when she died in 1975. (Her manuscripts went to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.)

Alberta also cared deeply about ephemera with an Austen connection, such as newspaper and magazine articles, which she preserved in ten overstuffed scrapbooks. So our Austen Collection at Goucher is a terrific resource for popular culture studies as well as book history.

As a college professor, what’s your favorite aspect of teaching Austen? Do you face any challenges in interesting students in her writings?

Absolutely the best part of teaching Austen is that so many students are enthusiastic about studying her writings. She is an easy sell! Shakespeare is the only other English writer who has a draw like hers. And Austen has the advantage that her life story as a woman writer is especially appealing. Many of my students are creative writers themselves and find Austen’s confidence and perseverance to be very inspiring.

That said, I do often encounter people—students and ordinary readers—for whom Austen just seems unappealing. Maybe her novels seem girly; maybe they seem awfully full of privileged white people (not untrue); maybe the sentences or paragraphs are just too long. Stephen King said recently in a New York Times Book Review that he had never read any Austen, and I feel it’s a real shame that a great writer like him has missed a great writer like her! Maybe I’ll have to send him this new Emma and see if he can get into it.

I love it that everyone who reads Jane Austen has her or his own ideas about what’s important and what’s interesting. Some readers gravitate towards her humor, while for others, the morality really resonates. Pretty much all of us can find at least one character who reminds us of someone we know—and we’re lucky if it’s a character who’s nice!

Do you think we have a modern-day equivalent of Jane Austen? Or do you have any “further reading” suggestions for Austen fans who’ve read all of her books a thousand times and are looking for something new?

I love to read contemporary novels and memoirs, and I always keep an eye out for hints that an author is influenced by or interested in Austen. I recently re-read Allegra Goodman’s novel The Cookbook Collector and really appreciated how she weaves in elements from Emma as well as from her more obvious place of inspiration, Sense and Sensibility. I also particularly like that Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic-format memoir Fun Home and the Dykes to Watch Out For comics, gives several shout-outs to Austen. Flyover Lives, Diane Johnson’s hybrid family history / memoir, includes a fascinating account of what Johnson’s foremothers in America were up to at the same time that Austen was writing about much more privileged women in England.

I’d also warmly recommend the novels of Barbara Pym, a 20th-century English writer. Pym’s dry humor and close observation of everyday people ally her very closely with Austen. And it’s always rewarding to read, or re-read, 19th-century novels by authors who knew and loved Austen’s writings. In that category, I’d especially recommend Elizabeth Gaskell (start with Cranford) and George Eliot (outside of Austen, Middlemarch is my all-time favorite novel).

And, finally, I’d say that Austen lovers are the best people to ask about what to read next! Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of shout-outs for the novels of Anthony Trollope, so I may have to get cracking on his enormous oeuvre . . .

Thank you, Juliette, for spending time with us today.  This is going to be a beautiful book with deckle edge — one of my favorites.

Interview with Carolina De Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

If you’ve missed out on Carolina De Robertis’ books before, you need to check out Perla, which was one of my favorites. She has a new book due out in July, The Gods of Tango.

About the Book from GoodReads:

February 1913: seventeen-year-old Leda, carrying only a small trunk and her father’s cherished violin, leaves her Italian village for a new home, and a new husband, in Argentina. Arriving in Buenos Aires, she discovers that he has been killed, but she remains: living in a tenement, without friends or family, on the brink of destitution. Still, she is seduced by the music that underscores life in the city: tango, born from lower-class immigrant voices, now the illicit, scandalous dance of brothels and cabarets. Leda eventually acts on a long-held desire to master the violin, knowing that she can never play in public as a woman. She cuts off her hair, binds her breasts, and becomes “Dante,” a young man who joins a troupe of tango musicians bent on conquering the salons of high society. Now, gradually, the lines between Leda and Dante begin to blur, and feelings that she has long kept suppressed reveal themselves, jeopardizing not only her musical career, but her life.

Please give Carolina De Robertis a warm welcome.

1. In addition to writing your own fiction, you also translate books. Could you explain a little bit about the process of translating books and share what languages you translate?

I translate Latin American writing from Spanish into English—and I’m incredibly passionate about the world of translation, not only because it’s crucial to ensuring access to international literatures, but also because I find it to be an exhilarating process. There is nothing quite like taking a beautiful piece of writing and striving to render it in a different language. For me, it’s a bit like transposing a piece of music from one instrument to the other, like taking a work written for piano, say, and adapting it for the violin. There are things that the piano can do that the violin can’t do, and vice versa. The same is true for English, Spanish, and the other languages I speak (though not so well!). You have to be true to the original, and yet limber enough to ensure that the piece’s soul will sing out on your new instrument.

2. In The Gods of Tango, Leda finds herself alone in an unfamiliar country, Argentina, did you draw on any of your own personal experiences to flesh out the challenges she faced?

I feel deeply at home in writing the experiences of immigrants, even when their circumstances differ from the ones I’ve known. The way I see it, I was born an immigrant; I left South America in my mother’s womb, and then grew up in three different countries. I have always been an “other;” I don’t know any other way of moving through the world.

When I made my first extended trip to Uruguay and Argentina, my nations of origin, I was sixteen years old, and the experience was a dizzying blend of intense familiarity and desire for something that had long felt far away. And so, I am perennially drawn to writing stories of crossing borders, of belonging and not-belonging, of what it means to hold multiple cultures in your skin.

3. Tango is a very sensual and rhythmic dance, how did that music and dance inspire your writing for the book? And did you listen to such music while writing?

Absolutely! Once I knew that this novel was going to portray the early years of the tango’s evolution, and explore the communities that gave birth to it, it was obvious that I’d have to empaparme del tango, as we’d say in Uruguayan Spanish—drench myself in it. The tango had always been familiar to me, of course; I come from the land of tango, my own grandfather was a tango composer, and the music was present in my childhood home, from tape recordings to my parents’ absent singing to themselves.

In the research for this book, I took private dance lessons with an incredible teacher in Uruguay; studied the violin with a professional tango musician; interviewed tango musicians and dancers about their intimate relationships with the art form; studied a mountain of scholarly texts; and, of course, listened and listened to the music. All of it, from classic giants such as De Caro and Canaro to Piazzolla’s bold innovations, from the immortal Carlos Gardel to the twenty-first century fusions of Gotan Project. Happily, I am listening to tango as I write these very words.

4. Women dressing as men to live the lives they want is a theme in many historical fiction works and there are women in history who have done such things. What about this life inspired your story and how did it take on a life of its own when writing the novel?

I knew that I wanted to write about the wave of migrants that came to Buenos Aires in the early twentieth century, mainly from Europe, and the tremendous impact they had on the culture in their quest to survive. My great-grandmother was part of that wave, leaving her tiny Italian village alone, at the age of 17, to go marry her cousin.

But I also knew that I wanted this book to dive right into the heart of the birth of the tango, which was happening in those very tenements where those immigrants landed, a music born from poor people, working people, blending their cultures and sounds. The tango world was extremely gendered in the 1910s. It was a seedy underworld, the domain of men, where the only women welcome were prostitutes. How would a female character be able to penetrate that world on her own terms?

There was only one answer. An answer that many women have found throughout history—far more women than recorded history shows. Though I can’t prove it, I am absolutely positive that there were plenty of real women in 1910s Buenos Aires doing exactly what Leda did. Sadly, their histories have been lost. That’s what we need fiction for: to dramatically repair the silences of history.

5. Do you tango? And who are your favorite tango dancers?

As I mentioned, the tango is in my culture and in my skin, and I have danced at Buenos Aires milongas with my relatives, and studied the dance. But I’m not much of a natural dancer, myself. What I do have is something of a musician’s ear so I relate to it that way—and, like many ríoplatenses (people from Argentina and Uruguay), I don’t think of the tango as just a dance, but as much more than that: as a music, as a culture, as a way of relating to the world. This is a lens that is missing in the U.S. and beyond; I hope to offer it to readers.

That said, there are many marvelous tango performers, both dancers and musicians, here in the U.S., and I am in awe of what they do.

6. How important do you think it is to highlight the history of Latin American nations both good and bad, and what pieces of that history do you think should be told that haven’t?

Just as with any region of the world, I think it’s crucial to tell the whole truth, however complex or potentially uncomfortable. In The Gods of Tango, I strove to portray both the harsh and beautiful aspects of early tango culture.

There are so very, very many threads of Latin American history that are still undertold, and these, not surprisingly, are the narratives of those whose stories have been historically marginalized, including women, queers, and people of African descent. Very few people know that the tango has African as well as European roots, and that, at the turn of the twentieth century, Buenos Aires was one-third black. It was very important to me to include those voices in this novel. That said, there is still so much more tremendously rich Afro-Argentinean and Afro-Uruguayan history to be told.

7. Finally, how has your journey as an author evolved? Any tricks or tips you’d like to share?

Now that I’m working on my fourth novel, the arc of the whole experience is more familiar, so that, when I feel like I’m walking right into a moonless night without a flashlight and I can’t tell where I’m going next, it’s easier to stay calm and think, oh, look, here’s the part where I’m lost in the dark, that must be progress. There’s no trick, really, except this one open secret: persist, persist, persist.

Interview with Luanne Castle, Author of Doll God

Although today is technically the end of National Poetry Month, my poetry reviews for #NPM15 will continue into May because I read way more books than I thought for the month, thanks to the Dewey 24-hour read-a-thon!

To wrap up this year’s National Poetry Month tour, I’ve got a great interview with Luanne Castle, author of Doll God (my review).

“This emotional collection will take a toll on its readers, but the journey will leave them changed in terms of perspective and renewed in that they will want to live more fully and enjoy each moment in the moment.” — Savvy Verse & Wit

Please give her a warm welcome.

1.  Re-examining our childhood and our pasts is something that echoes throughout your collection, Doll God, and there is a deep sense of anxiety and loss tied to those reflections.  When did you first start examining your own childhood and past and how does anxiety and loss tie into that self-examination?

My childhood has always loomed over me, both for its anxieties and its imaginative qualities.  I also write and have published prose based on my childhood experiences. When I was a little girl my father built a bomb shelter in our basement. We were in the middle of the Cold War, and there was fear and tension in our lives because we thought “The Bomb” could drop at any moment.  So childhood has always crept into my poetry, although I didn’t start to examine it with purpose until about 6 or 7 years ago, which is when I began to spend more time writing.

2.  Dolls are prevalent throughout the collection.  Do you think dolls still play a pivotal role in young girl’s lives? And how do you think their role has changes with the evolution of technology?

Dolls are still important to society–and to many young girls. When I was a kid not all girls preferred dolls to other toys, and that is still true. Even I had as much fun with my cement mixer and “army men” as I did with my dolls at certain periods in my life. Actually, army men are really dolls, now that I think about it! But dolls have stayed close to the essence of my childhood. Boys also were given dolls when I was a kid. We were probably the first generation where boys like my brother were given G.I. Joe dolls. My brother had Chatty Cathy’s baby brother with a sweater and cap knitted by my grandmother. Since then, so many different dolls and doll-like figurines have been created for both boys and girls.

Technology has slightly altered the doll-scape in two ways. We have many “throwaway dolls.” By that I mean that the discretionary income and low-cost overseas production has created an abundance of dolls found on the shelves of Target, Wal-Mart, and Toys R Us. Dolls are often $5-10 birthday presents for girls. Too many Barbies? Lose one at the grocery store, pull off the head of another. For many fortunate children, there will always be another Barbie. The other way technology has affected the doll industry is that dolls are produced to capitalize on the popularity of movies, television shows, and computer games. While this trend started 100 years ago, it has grown as technology has grown. Now a huge portion of dolls at the major store chains are related to these technologies.

3.  How much of your poetry is autobiographical?  How far does it stray from your own life?  In other words, where is the line between fact and fiction?

Sometimes a poem starts out autobiographical and strays into the fictional without me even realizing it. Other times a poem might begin as fiction, but by the time it’s completed, it has incorporated a lot of elements from my own life experiences.  A reader would be hard pressed to find the “line” between the two in my work. And I think that is as it should be–to read poetry as confessional is dangerous and limits the reader, the poem, and the poet.

4.  Do you still collect dolls?  How many are or were in your collection?

I didn’t begin an actual doll collection until my daughter grew out of her dolls. When she was no longer interested in them, I became fascinated and still have all of hers. As a child I had baby dolls, but that was because once I was given a doll I didn’t lose it or abuse it, so over time I had a fair number. But never a collection. We didn’t have the money for that. I didn’t  even own a real Barbie. My Barbie was a Miss Suzette by Uneeda. But I did have a Ken doll and a beautiful toddler-sized walking doll who may or may not have ended up in Doll God. My husband and I love antiquing and in the past ten years I’ve accumulated quite a few dolls. I have a decent collection of Asian dolls, including Japanese hakatas. I also collect Magic Attic Club, Madame Alexander, cowboy and cowgirl, Red Riding Hood, literary, and Broadway musicals.

5.  Writing is a solitary endeavor for many authors.  How do you maintain contact with the outside, and how does that differ from the experience of reading your work aloud for an audience?

I maintain contact by connecting with my writing peeps, both in person and through email and phone calls. Then blogging and social media are other ways I feel a part of the outside world. These are important for social reasons, but also for educational purposes. I learn a lot from my fellow writers.

I am not fond of being in large groups of people, but I do enjoy the act of reading my poetry, which is a performative experience. I recently was interviewed on a morning television show and was asked to read one of my poems. That was fun. I have also been known to read to rescue kitties at the shelter once a week. In the past I’ve read my poetry at various events, but since Doll God was published, I haven’t been able to read publicly. I hope to change that in the near future.

6.  Doll God is your first collection.  How long have you been writing poetry, and how long did it take you to create your first collection?  Are you planning a second?

I first wrote poetry when I was in about 5th grade. My first poem rhymed and was about an old woman in a rocking chair. Chair is a good rhyming word.  I took up writing poetry again in high school and wrote very melancholy poems. I turned in a poem for an English class assignment and received a B+ on it–my lowest English grade. That’s when I decided that teachers shouldn’t really be putting letter grades on students’ creative writing attempts. I have a whole philosophy about the teaching of poetry.

When I started college I was encouraged to look ahead to getting a job, so I set poetry aside until my husband and I adopted our first child from Korea. I wrote a poem about picking him up at the airport and the floodgates opened. Soon after, I applied to the MFA in creative writing program at our local university and began studying writing in earnest.

My current project involves “genealogy poems” based on research I’ve done on female ancestors. I’d like to create a chapbook from these poems.

Thank you so much for hosting me, Serena. I loved that Doll God could be part of your book tour.  These questions were great fun and really made me think in ways I haven’t before.

Interview with Stephen G. Eoannou, Author of Muscle Cars

Please welcome Stephen G. Eoannou, author of the short story collection Muscle Cars, to the blog today. He and his book have been on a blog tour with Poetic Book Tours this month, and what a great way to cap off the tour with an interview.

In Muscle Cars is there one short story that you ever thought could be turned into a novel on its own? If so, which one and why?

Actually, “Slip Kid”, which really is the centerpiece of the collection, started out as a failed novel attempt. I had shoved the manuscript in a drawer, but I didn’t forget about it. I was certain there was a story there. I just had to dig through all the bad writing to get to it. I pulled the manuscript out as I was completing the collection to see if I could distill a part of it into a short story, and I did; I think “Slip Kid” was the second last story I wrote for the Muscle Cars. The mistake I made in the novel was twofold. First, there wasn’t enough at stake for the protagonist. I needed more conflict. I needed to make the situation more difficult for him with real consequences. Second, I wasn’t pleased with the novel’s language. It needed to be tougher, harder, full of more slang and vulgarity.

This was an easy fix. I just had to write the dialogue more the way my friends and I spoke in high school. I was pleased with the short story version of “Slip Kid”, but the story kept calling me back so I developed it into a short screenplay, which ended up winning the Best Short Screenplay Award at the 36th Starz Denver Film Festival. I thought I was finally done with it, but then I started thinking about developing it into feature-length screenplay. After I try that, who knows? I may go full circle and take another shot at expanding back it into another, better novel.

Could you explain a little bit about the process of entering the SFWP Literary Awards and what other contests you considered for your collection? Why enter a contest of this kind at all?

Writing contests are tricky things. There’s so many of them now and the entry fees can add up, so I was very selective of which ones I entered. I only entered contests where the awards were well-established and the judges were well known and well respected. That was certainly the case with SFWP, which is offering the awards for the fifteenth year now and have had past judges such as Chris Offutt, Robert Olen Butler, and David Morrell, who judged last year’s contest.

But I had another connection with SFWP that made me want to enter. At one time I shared an office and taught with Ken Cook at The College of Charleston, and he won the SFWP Awards back in 2002. I remember him telling me what a great experience it was and how it really jump-started his writing career. After I had finished Muscle Cars, I knew that SFWP was one of the contests I wanted to enter based on what he’d told me. Of course, I didn’t really think I would be named one of the winners. That was a wonderful surprise. I was very proud to have Kenny write a blurb for my book.  It brought things full circle for us: we both met as unpublished and hopeful writers in Charleston and we both had our first books published by SFWP as award winners.

If you had never gone to Queens University for an MFA, do you think you would have continued writing fiction or produced a collection of short stories? What did the experience do for your writing practice?

I had been writing for years in a vacuum with little success. I viewed applying to an MFA program as my last chance, my last swing at being a writer. I was more than a little surprised when I was accepted at Queens, to be honest with you. During my first residency, I went to the graduate readings and all the MFA graduates said that the program had been life changing. I remember sitting in the back of the auditorium and thinking no way is this program going to change my life, but it did. If I hadn’t gone to Queens, I still would’ve been writing but probably writing poorly. I would have been still stuck in that vacuum without a network of fellow writers to share work like I have now with my Queens alumni.

Would I have written a collection without going to Queens?

Maybe, but I suspect it wouldn’t have been as good as Muscle Cars. The collection contains two Pushcart-nominated stories, a winner of an Honor Certificate from The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the collection is a Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Award winner. I couldn’t have done it without the MFA program at Queens; half the stories were written there and the other half was critiqued by Queens alumni after I graduated.

Many writers have been writing since a young age. What was your first piece about and what was the title? Do you still have it?

I vaguely remember being home sick from school and typing with two fingers a story about a doctor. This was maybe in the second or third grade. I don’t remember the title, but I had named my main character Dr. Weinstein after a local newscaster whose trademark was alliteration: Buffalo blaze busters battle a big one on Broadway.

I wrote a lot in the fifth and sixth grade and I gave those stories to my Aunt Helen. When she passed away, I found three of them: “The Falcon”, about a boy growing up on an Indian reservation; “What’s A Few Months More?” about a teenager in a juvenile detention center; and “The Summer of Riches” about a boy who spends the summer with his grandparents in Connecticut. Of course, I knew nothing in the fifth grade about life on a reservation, or in a juvenile detention center, or in Connecticut, but that didn’t stop me. Kids are fearless with their imaginations. By the way, I still type with two fingers. That typing class I took at Kenmore Junior High School didn’t stick.

Who are some of your influences that have informed your writing over the years? And who, if any, are your favorite poets?

When I finished reading The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving, I remember wishing that I had written it. This was back in high school and it was the first time I remember feeling that way about a book. I loved how Irving was able to make me laugh out loud until I realized how sad it was and then my laughter stopped, like I had been slapped and slapped hard. I wanted to have that emotional swing in my writing, and was conscious of attempting that while writing stories for the collection like “Swimming Naked” and “Stealing Ted Williams’ Head”.  Soon after discovering Irving, I started reading William Kennedy. I loved his sense of place and how he made Albany come alive as a mythical place. I definitely wanted that in my writing. It was that same sense of place that drew me to Pete Hamill’s work.

When I started writing Muscle Cars, it was in the back of my mind that I wanted to do for Buffalo what those guys did for Albany and New York. Buffalo was my turf and I wanted to mine it for stories and characters. Even in stories where the city is never identified, I was thinking about my home town. People from around here will recognize the settings of “Ohio Street” and “The Wolf Boy of Forest Lawn” as Buffalo locations although I don’t think I named them as such. The city was definitely my muse for Muscle Cars.

The poetry question is interesting. I think reading poetry and becoming sensitive to rhythms, the music of words and conciseness always helps in prose writing, but I doubt the converse is true. I’ve always enjoyed Yusef Komunyakaa’s work. What’s interesting is that I heard him read his poetry before I read it.

This was in the late-eighties at a writing conference at Indiana University, I think. He is such a passionate, dramatic reader it was as if I was hearing poetry for the first time and I had to buy his books. I was mesmerized by his voice and the images he was creating in my mind. And even though I had no talent in writing poetry, I wanted my readers to “hear” and “see” my stories just as strongly as when they read and heard Komunyakaa’s poems. I tried to accomplish that by relying heavily on sensory detail. I want my readers to see “The Girl In The Window” and hear the engines in “Muscle Cars”, “Ohio Street”, and “Slip Kid”.  I want them to feel the cold and whipping wind in “Winter Night, 1994” and “Auld Lang Syne”.  If I accomplish that, I’ll have done my job.

Thanks, Stephen, for sharing your writing inspirations and influences with us today!

To check out the rest of the tour, click the image below: