#61: Leaving MFA, An Interview with Famed Blogger Jordan Younger, by Paul Florez

Every year countless writers apply to MFA programs across the country. Those lucky enough to get accepted, embark on a literary journey that encompasses two years of their life.

I first met Jordan Younger when we were assigned as each others writing partner during our first semester at The New School. We became fast friends and Jordan became an integral part of my MFA experience. Quite frankly, I couldn’t imagine the program without her.

The unthinkable happened last semester. Jordan left the program and moved back to Los Angeles. However since then her website, The Balanced Blog, has taken off and she’s made appearances on Good Morning America and The Doctors (among others) promoting her blog and a healthier lifestyle. Recently she secured a book deal with Fairwinds Press and even launched an app based on the blog.

Jordan’s success is remarkable and I found it intriguing it all came to her after she took the leap and left our MFA program.

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An Interview with Emma Straub, by Celia Johnson

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Fall is here. Some people love the cooler weather, but if you’re like me, as you walk along the sidewalk, leaves crunching beneath your feet, you’re yearning for those blissful, balmy summer months. Picking up a copy of The Vacationers is one way to escape. Emma Straub’s latest novel has everything you’d expect from a summer getaway in a far-off, exotic location – sunshine, beaches, museums, clubs. Add to that romance, fights, and laughter. The story follows the New York-based Post family and their friends during a two-week vacation in Mallorca. And on this trip, for better or worse, they’re forced to deal with many of their problems. I spoke with Straub about her characters, her creative process, and how she handles rejection.

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#60: An Interview with Book Publicist Diana Franco, by Maria Gagliano

When I think of Encounters in Publishing, I’m always drawn to the secrets of how a book is created–that is, the years of writing, editing, and revising that go into making a beautiful book. But there is another department of book nerds who are also sweating over these projects, and they rarely get the spotlight: Book Publicists. I chatted with Diana Franco, a Publicity Manager at Penguin Random House, about the love, stress, and emails (so many emails) that help get the word out about a book. It turns out, it’s not just the editors and writers who obsess over making a book perfect.

So, what does a typical day in the life of a book publicist look like?

A book publicist’s day is never the same one day to the next. But typically, I’m a bit glued to my email, for many reasons. I’m usually waiting for responses to media pitches, keeping track of any authors on tour (last minute travel emergencies, any local media, and correspondence with the bookstores/festivals they’re visiting), as well as internal correspondence with editors, the sales department, the marketing department, and my own managers. Book publicists not only pitch media–television and radio producers, magazine and newspaper editors, and bloggers–but we handle all aspects of any given title’s publicity campaign. This usually means pulling media lists and physically mailing lots of books from the office, setting up bookstore events where appropriate, sending authors on tour when appropriate and doing everything from picking the stores/markets to handling all of their travel arrangements, attending media and events with author when they’re in town, and sometimes traveling with authors to events in other cities. I often attend proposal meetings with editors and publishers when we are considering an acquisition and I offer my perspective on what I think the media response could be for that particular author/project. Other days I am writing–pitch letters for galley mailings, press releases, announcements for big acquisitions, and email pitches for following up on mailings I’ve sent.

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An Interview with Scott Cheshire, by Celia Johnson

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We published “Romantics,” a short story by Scott Cheshire, in Issue 12 of Slice. The theme for that issue was Obsession, which is fitting, because, as you’ll see in the following interview, Cheshire’s debut novel, High As the Horses Bridles, is the sum of many obsessions. The book begins with a stunning scene, set in Queens in the 1980s, in which twelve-year-old Josiah Laudermilk stands before a congregation of 4,000 people and experiences an overwhelming apocalyptic vision. The story plays out in three parts and this structure is a true feat of literary framing. Each section recasts the story, offering even more nuances to the themes of religion, mortality, and family. It’s the kind of book that, when you reach the end, you realize you’ve got to go back and start again. I spoke with Scott about the inspiration for his debut, his creative routine (or lack thereof), and his next book, which he hopes will “scare you shitless.”

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#59: Out of the Binders: An Interview with Leigh Stein by Matthew Daddona

Leigh Stein, author of The Fallback Plan, is tireless in the publishing sphere. Just recently, inspired by a Mitt Romney gaffe during the national debates, Leigh created Out of the Binders, a symposium that attracted women writers from all over the United States. The event was a huge success and encouraged the type of cultural/gender-related conversation writers have been beckoning for. I wrote to Leigh about this experience, and she responded with triumphant news.

The Internet and Twitter is abuzz with the #binders hashtag. Can you tell me about this hashtag and what Out of the Binders represents?

The binders movement began as a private Facebook community for women that has Fight Club style rules of secrecy, so I can’t say too much about it…but I will say that the group was the inspiration behind my conference and now my newly formed non-profit Out of the Binders, Inc. Our mission is to increase the diversity of voices in the media and literary arts, with a focus on women and gender non-conforming writers.  Read more

#59: The First Student Reading of the Year, by Paul Florez

Back in July, I wrote at length about my hopes and fears for the first student reading I’d be hosting at The New School. I ended the story on a relatively positive note and saying we’ll have to wait till September to see how it goes. Well, it’s September and the reading happened last week. I hope you’re ready for a tale of gut-wrenching humiliation, because spoiler warning, that’s exactly what happened. First, a little backstory about the morning of the student reading. I woke up late. The night before I had told Siri to set an alarm for 9am because Fresh Direct was coming at that hour (for those of you who don’t know Fresh Direct is a grocery delivery service). Maybe Siri is hard of hearing or perhaps I wasn’t audible enough for her, but I woke up at 10:30am to my two feisty Pomeranians, Victorius and Apollo, incessantly barking at the door. Read more

An Interview with Michael Perry, by Heidi Sistare

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Michael Perry writes memoir that straddles the philosophical and the mundane. He’s also riotously funny. In addition to memoir, Perry writes young adult novels, hosts a radio show, performs in a band, and raises pigs on his farm in rural Wisconsin. His books include Population 485, Truck: A Love Story and The Scavengers. We talked about his next novel, parenting, and his favorite poets.

Scavengers

You write a lot about the people and places around you, in your small town in Wisconsin. How do your neighbors respond to being written about? 

For the most part, folks don’t take much notice. Occasionally someone will say something funny and ask, “So is that gonna be in the next book?” My friend Bob the One-Eyed Beagle (who says a lot of very quotable things) got in the habit of trying to generate a quote every time I saw him. I told him his quality was slipping and he needed a better editor. We had a good laugh over that. I do my best to write honestly but respectfully, and I think that helps. It also helps that I really do live close to the ground, I really do walk into the same post office, I still carry a fire department pager, I still have an old pickup truck and a deer rifle, that sort of thing. I have had at least one person get upset with me for something I wrote, but the interesting thing was she didn’t contest the facts, she just wanted to tell her side of why it happened.

Your most recent book, The Scavengers, is a young adult novel. Can you talk about how it was different to write for a younger audience? Did being a father influence your decision to write a book for children?

As a Dad with two daughters, I did want to write a book with a strong, smart female protagonist who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. But mostly, I focused less on writing for a younger audience than just trying to tell a good story, an interesting yarn, something that would keep readers of all ages turning the pages. The book is coming out right about now, so readers will make the final call on that.

How has becoming a parent changed your writing routine? 

For years and years I was a bachelor and I usually started writing at 6 or 7 p.m. and wrote until the wee dark hours. I still do that once or twice a month (and last week pulled two all-nighters in a row) (SO MUCH COFFEE) but ever since I became a dad the schedule has shifted and most days you’ll find me at the desk by 7 a.m., trying to get as much done as I can before the day derails. Most importantly, however, I want to be around for dinner and bedtime whenever I can. I’m on the road 80-100 days per year so I don’t always manage it, but my favorite thing is to end the day reading books with my children, just as my parents did with me.

One of the things that struck me about Population: 485 was the way your writing moves easily between side-stitch humor, philosophical musings, and the details of everyday life. Is this cocktail of humor, philosophy, and the mundane important to you? Does it reflect how you naturally think?

My head skitters all over the place. I can’t keep track of things, and I’m constantly going off on tangents. So that certainly accounts for some of the variegations in the ol’ tapestry, if you will. But it’s also a reflection of the people who raised me. They were readers and conversationalists, they were thoughtful and reflective, but they were also rural roughnecks who loved goofball humor and thought nothing was funnier than seeing someone get hit in the head with a monkey wrench as long as there was no long-term damage. So yeah, it is how I think, for better or worse. You aim high, but you don’t ride high. If that makes any sense.

When did you know you wanted to write? Were there particular authors who inspired you?

I was out of college and working as a nurse and EMT before I really got serious about writing. There were little things that led up to that moment, clear back to the first books my Mom read to me, and a 7th grade English teacher who gave me my first free-writing assignment, but it wasn’t until I started writing every day in between nursing shifts that I realized how badly I wanted to be a writer. The list of writers who inspired me is endless, but I’ll mention Jim Harrison (his book “Legends of the Fall” became the famous movie, but it was his collection of essays, “Just Before Dark,” that changed my writing forever and for the better) and a whole raft of poets from Rita Dove to Lucille Clifton to Sharon Olds to Olena Kalytiak Davis to James Wright to Dylan Thomas.

It seems like you do a lot of things beyond writing. Does farming or performing influence your writing? How do you balance all of the things that you do?

Sure, everything we do filters through our unconscious and back out in some form. Going out to feed the chickens influenced me literally (The Scavengers features a silly fictional rooster based on a real rooster) and figuratively (writing in Visiting Tom about fireflies as cosmic teardrops). Performing music helps me consider how words are received upon the ear as opposed to the eye, and thus informs the rhythm of my prose, I suppose.

As far as balancing all of the things I do, it’s economic triage. Do what has to be done to keep the clodhopper dream alive. It’s no more complicated than balancing all the responsibilities of any given person out there working hard to keep the family afloat. My brother the farmer/logger/heavy equipment operator juggles jobs like crazy; he just doesn’t write essays about it.

What are you working on next? 

At the moment I am headed out on book tour for The Scavengers. But in my backpack on the passenger seat is a draft of my next book, a novel about a bachelor farmer whose cow gives birth to a calf bearing the image of Christ. I’ll be pecking away at that in my motel rooms between tour stops, because the final draft is due in less than five weeks, and based on my editor’s markups there are miles to go…


Michael Perry’s bestselling memoirs include Population 485, Truck: A Love StoryCoop, and Visiting Tom. Raised on a small Midwestern dairy farm, Perry put himself through nursing school while working on a ranch in Wyoming, then wound up writing by happy accident. He lives with his wife and two daughters in rural Wisconsin, where he serves on the local volunteer fire and rescue service and is an amateur pig farmer. He hosts the nationally-syndicated “Tent Show Radio,” perfrms widely as a humorist, and tours with his band the Long Beds (currently recording their third album for Amble Down Records). He has recorded three live humor albums including Never Stand Behind A Sneezing Cow and The Clodhopper Monologues. He can be found online at www.sneezingcow.com.

Heidi Sistare writes from her home in Portland, Maine, where she attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. You can view her published work on her website: www.heidisistare.com.

 

#58: Behind the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with editor Maya Ziv by Maria Gagliano

The word ‘platform’ is often greeted by groans from emerging writers. Many of us are tired of hearing that we need to ‘get on Twitter’ and ‘build a following’ if we want an agent or publisher to notice our work. We’re writers—bookworms and wallflowers by design. Many writers do tweet comfortably and brilliantly, but most of us do not, and we cower at the thought of trying. I caught up with HarperCollins editor Maya Ziv for a brief chat about how she views platform when considering a novel. And good news: She doesn’t think Twitter is everything.

Maya will be on our “What’s All This Talk About ‘Platform,’ and Do I Really Need One?” panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference in just one week. The weekend’s complete panel schedule can be found here.

How much do you care about author platform when considering a project from a debut author? What does ‘platform’ tell you about the writer? 

I mostly acquire fiction, so my main test in considering submissions is whether I fall in love with the writing and premise. But, platform is definitely a plus. In the world of fiction, that can mean that the author went to an MFA program and has the support of prestigious writers. In nonfiction it can mean that the author has written for several publications and has support/connections with writers and editors, or that author has an active online presence that will hopefully translate to book sales. I may sound Pollyannaish, but I think it is ultimately about the quality of the project. I have to believe that good books find homes, no matter who the author knows.

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An Interview with Elissa Schappell, by Maria Gagliano

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I wouldn’t want to imagine the contemporary literary world without Elissa Schappell in it.

She is fiercely dedicated to celebrating new writing, and her generosity of spirit touches so many facets of our community. As an editor, she learned from mentors at the Paris Review and in the 1990s went on to cofound Tin House, one of our generation’s most revered literary magazines. These days, Schappell contributes to Tin House as editor-at-large while also penning book reviews in her “Hot Type” column in Vanity Fair—making her role as a reader just as influential as her editorial work.

Schappell is a fiction writer to the core. Her latest book, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, was chosen as one of the best books of the year by outlets as varied as the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and O magazine. And perhaps not surprisingly given her obsession with new writing, Schappell also makes time to teach creative writing in the MFA programs at Columbia University and Queens University.

I’m equally inspired by Schappell’s ass-in-chair dedication to writing as I am by her literary hustle. Writing doesn’t come any easier because of her many lit jobs: the first drafts are still rough and rambling, the distractions always tempting, and the self-doubt raging. We talked about how she manages to get it all done; how writing, reading, and editing have shaped her; and why a discombobulated household is a sign that Schappell’s writing is right where she wants it to be.

Blueprints for Building Better GirlsYou wear several hats in the literary world: you are a book reviewer at Vanity Fair, the editor-at-large of Tin House, and a writer. How do these three very different roles influence your work in each space?

I don’t think you can be much of a writer if you don’t read. I’m appalled by the number of writers and writing students I know who say, I don’t read because I don’t have time, or I don’t read because I don’t want to be influenced by other writers’ work, or My busy reality-TV-watching schedule doesn’t permit me time to read books, only blogs.

Because of my job at Vanity Fair, I am inundated by new books, which can be very inspiring and exciting. I feel particularly lucky that because of my position, I get books from indie publishers as well as mainstream publishers. Thus I am able to discover books that I’d otherwise likely have missed. That said, as a fiction writer and essayist, the sheer number of books, the tonnage, can be overwhelming. In dark hours I can’t help but think, Does the world really need another book from me?

My first job in the literary-magazine world was at the Paris Review. It was so cool to see the work of writers I admired, my heroes, before it was edited and published. From working there, I learned a great deal about the craft of writing, the writer’s life, what it takes to be a great writer. Whatever skills I have as an editor come largely from observing George Plimpton, who was a virtuoso editor, wield his red pencil. As a cofounder and the editor-at-large of Tin House, I feel particularly privileged whenever I have any small hand in publishing a new writer in the magazine, or finding an audience for a book that deserves to be read. I take my role as a literary citizen seriously.

You cofounded Tin House sixteen years ago. How have you seen the literary landscape change in that time? And how have those changes affected your work on Tin House today?

A lot has changed. Thanks to the online journals and the rise of independent small presses, there are a lot more places to publish—which is marvelous. What is less pleasing is the number of publishing houses that have been gobbled up by large corporations. This consolidation of power and influence, of taste, can only lead to a further homogenization of literature. The world would be better served if some of these houses just went into the toilet-paper business. Increasingly, writers who feel undervalued by their house, dissatisfied with the traditional publishing model, or simply slimed by the übercorporate, monolithic publishing complex are seeking to publish with smaller indie publishers. As a publisher of books as well as a literary magazine, Tin House has been more than happy to throw open our doors and welcome these writers into our home.

How do you write? Do you have a dedicated writing space and schedule, or do you take a more fluid approach?

When I was a girl, writing was as necessary to me as water. Writing was the one thing I was good at. It sustained me. It kept me from exploding into flames. When I got older, I wrote all the time because I was in love with the idea of being a writer. It was how I defined myself. I believed in the divine. It was easy then because I was little more than a psychic lightning rod. Of course, inspiration struck me, and did so over and over, and I valued each bolt equally. For me, writing was about feeling, an experience I was having in my body; it wasn’t about craft or storytelling, so I wrote easily and a lot. When I was in my mid-twenties, when I started really working, and writing for money, I became more self-conscious. Writing was still the way I figured out what I thought and how I felt; it was still the one place where I told the truth, the place I dumped my fear and anger, my fiction the place I was most myself, but it was much harder. I knew what I was writing wasn’t good or good enough. It was easier to not write. To beg off. I was too tired. I was too busy. It wasn’t like I was getting paid.

In my twenties I realized that the muse is a bum. The muse only shows up when you bait her by putting your ass in the chair. She can only be lured to your side by the sound of pounding keys, the smell of paper and ink. At some point (I imagine it was when the telephone company cut off our service) I realized it was time for me to start taking my life and my writing seriously. People who are serious about their work show up to work, day or night. So I started setting myself little goals and deadlines. That helped. When I had a project I was excited about, I was manic. I worked mornings, afternoons, nights—whenever I could steal the time. I became infatuated with my writing, obsessed, in love. Perfection was writing all day in bed until I was spent. When it was going exceptionally well, any time I wasn’t writing I was thinking about writing. It was bliss. Until, of course, it burned out, or blew up sometimes with the same degree of passion with which it had begun. All it took was time and distance, some sleep and a few square meals, and suddenly I couldn’t stand it.

My writing was so tedious, so phony, so wrongheaded and stupid. I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with it. I wanted it gone. It was just a reminder of how tedious, phony and wrongheaded and stupid I was. And then I wouldn’t write for weeks and weeks. There is nothing like having a baby to enforce routine. It quickly became clear that the only way I could get time to write was to ask for it. The only way that worked was for other people—my husband, babysitters, friends—to know when I was going to work so there would be someone to care for the baby. I found that when I told people that I was going to write, and then actually did it, they made space for me to do it. (Here I must say that I am married to an extraordinarily generous, supportive man and blessed with great family, friends, and babysitters. Also it should be said that I am not particularly pleasant to live with when I’m not writing.) In order to get that time alone—which I craved and needed—I had to keep writing. So I got into a routine.

What works for me is to begin working as soon after waking as possible—before my hypercritical voice wakes up and starts in with the insults and whining. It’s also best if I leave my house. I don’t like working in cafés. I know it works for many, but it feels too performative for me. I feel self-conscious, like: Regardez, the artiste! The writer at work! Admire my beret! I focus best and am most productive when I’m working in a friend’s empty apartment, or ideally at the Brooklyn Writers Space, which is just a short distance from my home. I make myself tea, put in my earplugs, and sit down and work. I can easily go for six hours, longer if I am obsessed. It’s hard for me to work at home. Too easy to procrastinate online, too easy to be distracted by the state of perpetual domestic chaos that rules my home, too easy to convince myself that I really ought to tackle some of the household chores I’ve been putting off. Things I should have done ages ago, like regrout the tub and toss the mold-furred produce in the crisper, find my tax receipts for 2012. The truth is, when my work is going well, everything around me goes to hell. The quality of my housekeeping exists in inverse proportion to the quality of my work.

I’m not the first person to admire your writing for its honesty. When reading Blueprints for Building Better Girls, I stopped reading midway through “Monsters of the Deep” to google (and then find, and email) my eighth-grade math teacher, whom I hadn’t thought much about in twenty years, because the scene between Heather and Ms. Sandberg really resonated with me.

I think we all have a teacher, if we’re lucky, who saved us. For me it was two English teachers. In middle school there was Mrs. Dudkowski, and in high school, Ms. Kipp. I didn’t need what Ms. Sandberg gives Heather, but what I needed—encouragement to write, support, and praise for doing something that I felt just made me a weirdo—that mattered greatly. We don’t forget those teachers. And we shouldn’t.

*This is an excerpt from an interview that appears in issue 15 of Slice. To purchase a copy and read the full interview, click here. Schappell will also take part in our upcoming conference as a panelist (details about registrations/tickets here).


Photo credit: Emily Tobey

Elissa Schappell is the author of two books of fiction: Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me, which was a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway award. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. She is a founding-editor and Editor-at-Large of Tin House.

Maria Gagliano is a writer and editor and the business director of Slice Literary. Her writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, BUST, and Salon. When she’s not doing things with words, she’s teaching herself to sew, garden, pickle, preserve, and cook like her Sicilian parents. She shares her (mis)adventures at pomatorevival.com.