R.S. Deeren

On his budding writing career and rural America


R.S. Deeren is a fiction writer and poet hailing from the thumb of Michigan. He is an MFA recipient from Columbia College Chicago, where he was also a teaching assistant for the “Big Chicago” freshman program. Many of his short stories are published in online literary magazines, but mostly notably, his short story “Enough to Lose” was published in Tales of Two Americas, a collection edited by John Freeman. Deeren’s work often explores the implications of living in rural locations and the social dynamics that come from living in these places, all the while weaving in intricate details about place, time, and character.


What were the biggest influences in your life when you were younger that caused you to want to write?

My mom read to me and my sister when we were young. Later, waiting for her to get off work, my sister and I read at the Caro Area District Library after school. I was surrounded by books; I’m typing this while my forearms rest on a copy of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Rebecca Morgan Frank’s Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country. I also have a habit of giving myself arbitrary finish lines to cross and, growing up with the Accelerated Reading program in grade school, I was focused on always earning a Gold Medal. I wrote some stories when I was a kid. Dragons and whatnot. They were for a Young Authors program in grade school. I remember winning a bright green t-shirt for a story I wrote but I don’t remember what it was about. I also was a scared kid who grew up in the woods, so I had this imagination that I think was primed for stories.


You grew up in the Thumb of Michigan and your stories often take place there. What qualities of living in that area inspires you to write about what it is like to live there?

I don’t know where to start on this one . . . I’m interested in how Thumbodies view where they are from. I love the geography of it: a peninsula on a peninsula; north of Canada; almost an hour east and north of any interstates (but nobody drives the speed limit). It’s physically isolated, or, as isolated as a place can be in the Information Age. It’s a patchwork of rivers, swamps, state land, farmland, small towns, and beach front properties. It’s a geographical dead-end and a social crossroads, which is to say that it’s dynamic. I use my characters to dissect the impact of place. Most times in subjective, sometimes in destructive, ways. I want this dissection to illuminate something.


You were a Luminarts Cultural Foundation Creative Writing Fellow in 2015. What was that like?

It was an amazing thing to have happened. Jason Kalajainen, Leslie Haviland, and Mitch Kohl are extremely wonderful people (and so are all the others I met and who continue to support young Chicago artists). It came at a time when I was worried that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer. I was a country kid in a new place, in an arts degree, worried about student loans (still worried). Ever the petty writer, I remember that the piece I submitted to the Foundation had been wrecked in workshop. To the point where the comments became personal. So to have this third party come out and say, “we support you,” was uplifting. They still offer support today through grant proposals though I’ve yet to take them up on that offer.


How has being a Luminarts Fellow and a Union League Club of Chicago Writer-in-Residence changed your writing career?

I’m not sure. I put the money into a retirement account, so I guess future me will have a better idea in regards to that. We like to say we write for ourselves and I definitely believe that. I also believe we all have something to say and most of us have something worth saying. Somewhere along the way we get the urge to have those words read by others. So, when we are read, I think it might be a feedback loop. Either way, I’m writing and Luminarts and the Union League Club of Chicago gave me a space to do that and some eyes to read what I wrote. Who could ask for more?


I know a while back you were working toward completing a short story collection. Are you still working on this piece?

My collection manuscript is Enough to Lose. I’ve tinkered with the order of the stories and removed some ghastly draft stories from it. I’m happy with how it is now, and some agents have enjoyed it enough to read the whole thing. Not enough to take me on, though. Win some; lose some.

Currently I’m working on a collection of poetry about chopping wood and the artifice of toxic masculinity. I’ve also got a novel well underway about an ex-con and what happens when a person is forced to live on others’ terms. My protagonist is currently trapped in Windsor, Ontario and he’s going to miss a meeting with his Parole Officer.


Can you tell us a little of what Enough to Lose is about?

Enough to Lose is a collection of short stories about rural life in Trump’merica, and how folks thought they could live with their backs against the water and the rest of the country at arm’s length. In America post 2016, folks are quick to monolith individuals. Some of the characters here break from this, most fall victim to it. All of them are changed by it. OK, stump over.


You grew up in a rural town in Michigan and moved to Chicago for grad school. How did that shift in scenery and pace influence your writing?

I love impossible questions! Gosh, let me think. My life is pretty slow no matter where I live. Scenery is another matter. This is going to be a longer answer and it has two parts:

I think the best fiction is written from two worlds, so the culture shock of moving to Chicago gave me perspective. It let me see Smalltown, America better because I could break “country life” into parts and compare them against themselves. Like, I grew up out in the woods on a river. Other folks my age grew up in town. I didn’t think much of it at the time because to me, we all went to the same school and that was how we identified: Caro kids. But space and place is nuanced, and even a ten-mile difference in location breeds different people (ten miles is a ten minute trip where I’m from whereas it can be an hour plus in Chicago). Earlier, I answered a question about being from the Thumb and I started by answering with the word “they” rather than “we.” As if I wasn’t a part of the rural community anymore. But I never felt, well, rural, until I moved to the city. I think moving to Chicago and then Milwaukee has heightened this feeling of writing from two worlds for me, which leads to my second part of the answer. Isolation. Not the mopey, lock yourself in your room kind (though I am answering these questions from my single bedroom apartment). I was a goofus kind of kid and probably a little too annoying for my own good, but I did have a lot of time on my hands to watch folks do their thing, to listen to how they spoke, to narrate their lives in my head. Large cities let a person be anonymous and that’s great for me; I can watch more people and let this influence my writing. Public transit is a masterclass in humanity and character-building.


Currently you are working on getting your PhD at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. How has that been?

It is another great opportunity to live in two worlds. It has its challenges and its rewards. I get paid to write, teach, and teach writing. For that, I’m eternally grateful. I volunteer at Woodland Pattern Book Center in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee and that has been a great community to be a part of. It’s this wonderful destination for poets from around the world.


What advice do you have for young writers trying to get published?

This is a great question and I’ve probably got a dozen answers, but I’ll try to whittle that down. I am currently the Fiction Editor at cream city review at UWM so some of this might be shaded by the slush pile.

1- Read widely. White writers: read outside your demographic. Male writers: READ WOMEN

2- Find lit mags that publish what you love to read, what inevitably inspires you to write. Get to know these markets and the wonderful people (usually volunteers) who make them work.

3- Submit. Revise the Rejection. Repeat. Reward. You have something worth saying and eventually someone will want to listen.


Interview by Danielle Uppleger


Emory Wolfe

On publishing and creation


Emory Wolfe is the author of three novels: The AnimalsHow to Live Forever; and The Place that Cannot Be. These novels are chilling in their honest depiction of the human condition and harrowing in how far they push the proverbial envelope to get readers to think. Emory was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on publishing, creation, and what it means to be a writer in the 21st century with us.


Could you share with our readers what success looks like to you? How did you come about this definition?

Success as a writer, for me, is simply finishing the novel. And by finishing the novel, I mean leaving it wherever it is and being content with not coming back to it. Published or not published. Self-published or traditionally published. Ten drafts or a hundred drafts. Only the writer decides when it’s done. You’re always going to want to come back to it. A novel stays with you. Eventually, at some point, you just have to make it as perfect as you can and be done with it before you start butchering it. Which is a very real thing. Eventually you have to let it go. And for me, when I let it go, that’s success.

You have chosen to self-publish all three of your novels. Why did you choose self-publishing over traditional publishing? What advice could you share in regard to self-publishing?

I chose to self-publish because there are a lot of horrible things in my novels that I don’t think any traditional publishing house would be okay with putting that out there. I am attempting to write about the worst events in human history after all. I am attempting to show the darkest side of humanity, so it’s not something I ever think will be a commercial success, nor do I think it should. Can you imagine 2 Girls 1 Cup playing in theaters? I always tell people to read my stuff at their own risk. Not to say I write shock for shock’s sake, not at all, but there’s no denying there is some dark stuff in my novels, and I don’t think a publishing house would be interested in something so . . . horribly real, I guess you’d say.

As far as advice on self-publishing goes, I guess it really depends on your goals. If you really want to get your work out there, then you’re going to have to do all your own work. I would just make sure you do your research. Figure out the pros and cons for traditional vs. self-publishing, and go after what you want. And be prepared to work, either way. Fall in love with the work.

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Let’s dive into your most recent work, TPTCB. While hauntingly beautiful, it is a very jarring and graphic read. The main character commits suicide early on by self-immolation after all. What led you to explore the grisly side of humanity in this work? How did you prepare for this?

To prepare for this I did a lot of research on horrible things. When I wrote my first novel, The Animals, I began writing it because I was so disturbed at seeing some of these horrific shock videos out there, and writing about it helped me navigate that confusion. I was still a Christian when I wrote that. But when I started TPTCB, it was several years later, and I had lost my faith at that point, and I knew I was going to visit that dark side of humanity again, but I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I wanted as many events in TPTCB to be based on real stories, and that’s the scariest part. I throw in a bit of fun here and there, of course, but almost all of the horrible events in TPTCB are completely real things that happened. And that’s what’s so scary, at least for me. While writing it, very often, I had to write in small segments and take long breaks. I would get really anxious and paranoid sometimes at researching something that had happened before, and just knowing that there are people out there that would do these horrible, atrocious things. I got really nauseous writing a lot of this stuff, too, especially for certain scenes, like a lot of the torture scenes, or when I describe what scaphism is. When I wrote the scene that finally reveals what happened to Emily, I actually threw up. That scene took me a few weeks to write, because it was based on a real person. I had to write it in very short segments. Researching all these things and real-world incidents was painful. Painful and sad.

What led me to originally explore all of this in the first place was a question I asked myself a lot after I became an atheist, which was, “what if you’re wrong?” I think atheists that never believed in the first place have it easy, but atheists that de-converted have it much harder. Losing your faith is not easy, de-converting from a religion is absolutely painful, probably more painful than anything else, because in a way you lose everything that you had always believed in. If you lose someone you know and love, that’s tragic, no doubt about that, but when you lose your faith, you lose this belief that you’re going to see that person again that you lost in the afterlife, which I think really takes a toll on you. But yeah, losing your faith can make you paranoid, because you’re taught you can go to hell for eternity. So, for a long time, after I had lost my faith, I kept looking over my shoulder, wondering what if I was wrong.

Eventually I concluded that any god worth his merit, any all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing god would surely allow his creation to judge the creator, after all, if that wasn’t allowed, what kind of god would that be? If I hand you my book and you tell me it’s crap, then, well, maybe it’s crap, maybe it’s not, but you have the right to at least present your case on why you think it’s crap and tell me how I could have made it better. I’m not going to send you to an eternity of hell for it. Or if I do, I’ll at least hear you out first.

But if I was going to “sue god” I would need evidence, and what better evidence is there than exploring the worst events in humanity?

Much of the narrative of TPTCB focuses on the subversion of Judeo-Christian themes, but the tone you use can’t be described as outright hostile. Does this approach describe your attitude towards religion in general and Christianity specifically? Or would you consider yourself a religious person?

I think a more important question than the question “are you a religious person?” or “do you believe in God?” is the question I mentioned before, “what if you’re wrong?” That’s the question that drove me to write TPTCB. Regardless of whether you’re an atheist, agnostic, or Christian, what if you’re wrong? Yeah you might be right, and Jesus is real and I’m going to hell for not believing in Him, but . . . what if you’re wrong? And yeah, I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in god and I think there isn’t anything after death but . . . what if I’m wrong? I’m much more interested in that question. And in the answer.

So no, I’m not religious and I don’t believe in god, however, if I’m wrong, which is the more important question, I would still refuse to worship god, just like Gregory did. If I’m wrong, I would sue god, just like Gregory did. In fact, you and everyone else can count on it. In some crazy chance that I’m wrong, and you and I and everyone else end up in front of the pearly gates with Saint Peter, I’ll defend all the non-believers and take god to court. But I’m probably not wrong, and there probably isn’t anything after death, so enjoy your life.

Now, I’m not out there trying to de-convert anyone, as crazy as that sounds. I don’t think the world is ready for everyone to be an atheist, in fact the opposite, I think a lot of people need the idea of god, and probably will for hundreds of years. I don’t want to appear hostile towards Christianity in my novel and outside it, or any other religion, but it’s a tricky line, because I don’t want to appear hostile towards believers, but I do want to poke them with that question I think is so important. I want them to really ask themselves what they would really, truly do if they discovered their beliefs were wrong. Would their morals change? What are their morals really based on? Because if they are based on that they don’t want to go to hell and the bible says these are the right morals to have, well, I don’t think those are good reasons. Going back to this important question on what if I’m wrong, what finally helped me sleep at night, what finally helped me stop looking over my shoulder, was knowing that if I was wrong, I wouldn’t change any of my morals. What I perceive to be right is not based on any outside circumstance. So again no, I’m not religious nor do I believe in God, but I know I could be wrong, and I’m okay with that if that’s the case. Whereas my argument is, I have the upper hand against believers, because I know first-hand that if a believer loses their faith or discovers they are “wrong,” all of their morals suddenly come into question.

The voice you employ in TPTCB is so clinical, so detached, that while readers will clearly feel a great amount of sympathy for Gregory and the other characters, there is a sharp divide between audience and narrative. Was this separation intentional? What, if anything, did you want your audience to feel or think because of or in spite of this distance?

If you dance around the flames long enough, eventually you’ll get burned. I don’t want to burn anyone. But they should know there is a fire.

Backing up to your second novel, How to Live Forever, I felt that you very accurately explained in the narrative how characters often have a way of wrestling control away from the author. Is the rebellious nature of characters something you wanted to delve into with this work? Or were you trying to say something else?

Honestly, I love Kurt Vonnegut and the way he used author insertion, so I stole that from him. I tried it in my first novel The Animalsand have been doing it ever since. But to answer your question, no, I wasn’t trying to delve into explaining this tug-of-war between characters and the author, for me, my characters make their own decisions completely. It sounds a bit crazy, and I’m okay with that, but really I have no control over what my characters do or say most of the time. All I really do is start something, I put a character in a situation, and then they themselves get out of it, or try to. The way characters interact with me in my novels is a product of this method I have, this decision to let my characters have their own decisions. The protagonist of How to Live Forever was just as surprised to find himself a character in my novel as I was surprised at finding myself the author of the book he was in. I know that sounds a bit nuts. But I don’t know. That’s just the way it is. I get a little lost sometimes.

There is an image that you use in both HTLF and TPTCB, that of the impossible orange suitcase. This suitcase works so perfectly in both works as an image and really speaks to your ability to not only craft breathtaking fictional worlds—complete with their own laws of physics—but also to subvert audience expectations by juxtaposing the outlandish and fantastical with the wholly real. Where did this suitcase come from? And is it likely to show up in your next book?

When we met the first time, and you mentioned this to me, I honestly hadn’t realized I had used the same prop in both novels. So to be totally honest, I’m not really sure where it came from. Some of the themes in my novels are the same or run together from one novel to the next, and I guess, like here, you don’t notice it until a reader like yourself points it out.

I can tell you however about the color I chose for the suitcase. Van Gogh once said “orange is the color of insanity” and there’s something about that quote that really resonates with me. In The Animals, the color orange was definitely a theme I tried to incorporate it into the story, and I think the color orange bled over into my other novels, and at some point that turned into the impossible orange suitcase.

Yes, the impossible orange suitcase is making an appearance in my next novel, you can count on it.

As an author, you seem to want to always go deeper, to use your fiction as a vehicle to force your audience to think critically and philosophically about a wide range of topics. When you first sit down to write, are these topics already in your head? Do you actively want to explore philosophy through fiction, or is it a happy accident?

I would say both, an accident and on purpose. I start off with a question, there’s always a question, a big “what if?” And then I try to answer it by writing about it. So initially yes, I try to explore philosophy through writing, initially it’s on purpose. But as I’m writing and trying to answer this question I had, these characters eventually make their own choices, so I have no control over it, and then eventually they force me to pursue the answers for other questions that they bring up, which would be the accidents. So yes, I do try to actively bring philosophy into my novels, but just at the start. I’m not sure sometimes if I attempt to write about philosophy or attempt to philosophize through writing. They are the same thing to me.

Finally, you quite literally wear some of your influences on your sleeves. You have several tattoos, including one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s face on the back of one of your hands and the words “Read More” across your knuckles. What other literary tattoos do you sport? Do you feel like writers are going the way of the rock star, getting inked to tell their personal stories? Or is it just becoming more and more socially acceptable to be inked and writers are just following a general trend?

Some others I have are “and so it goes” on the side of my hand, from Vonnegut of course, and the first sentence to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, “Howard Roark laughed” on the side of my arm. I definitely do not feel like writers are going the way of the rock star. If anything, they are being shoved aside by professional YouTubers and Twitch streamers and Instagram models. Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just the way things are. Writers are solitary by nature, I think, so it’s okay.

I think everyone gets ink for different reasons. I do think tattoos are becoming more and more socially acceptable, but I can’t speak for anyone else why they get them. The reason I personally have these tattoos are for motivation. When I get down on myself, it helps to have something that inspires me right there on my hand. The only tattoos I regret are my Christian tattoos though. If you’re going to get tattoos, word of advice: don’t get religious ones. You may think it’s something that’s never going to change, I didn’t, but you never really know. A lot of people see all of my Christian tattoos (I was a real Jesus freak a long time ago) and say, “Oh wow, you must be pretty religious. . . .” I always answer, “how much time do you have?”


Interviewed by Jay C. Mims


Amanda Goldblatt

On her debut novel, Hard Mouth


2018 NEA Creative Writing Fellow Amanda Goldblatt discusses her debut novel, craft development, and more.

I first met Amanda in the fall of 2016, as an undergraduate student in her Intro to Creative Writing course. The following semester, I enrolled in her Elements of Style course. Both courses have been critical to where I currently stand as a writer and a reader—especially when it comes to content and form. Fast-forward two years later, it is with great pleasure that I now have the chance to discuss style and craft and how it relates to Amanda’s own work, as opposed to my own. 

Amanda Goldblatt’s work can lately be found at NOONFence, and Diagram. She is a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, and teaches creative writing at Northeastern Illinois University. Her debut novel Hard Mouth is forthcoming from Counterpoint in 2019. More information is available at 


So, how does it feel to have completed your debut novel, Hard Mouth, completed?

Just a week ago (as of writing this) I turned in my edits. I started the novel in 2011. It feels like floating in outer space—a long-term project is (for me at least) an anchor or an office, a consistency, a habit. I have a new long project—one I’ve been working on for the last couple of years—but I’m currently I am somewhere liminal, a little in shock. It’s not unpleasant. 


Without giving too much away, can you tell us about some of the themes or narratives that Hard Mouth explores or follows?

 I can give you the pitch: Hard Mouth is an adventure novel of grief. It’s about a young woman who can’t stand to watch her sick father die, and so she rents an isolated mountain cabin and leaves her life. She has only her imaginary friend, a jerk who believes he was an early twentieth-century character actor, to keep her company; and no survival skills of note. She wants detachment—not death, but something adjacent. A dislocated stasis. On the mountain things go awry, and away from that. 


Does your writing style in Hard Mouth veer from the style that can be found in your previously published works, or are they somewhat similar?

I always begin with language. My projects often center on the subjective experience of a first-person narrator. A first-person narrator uses language not only to tell a story but to express identity, the way all of us do. I don’t think this is a revelation, but it is something to which I’m doggedly loyal. It’s my primary writerly pleasure. 


The novel’s narrator, Denny, has her own voice, which is informed by her experiences. That comes out in her usage and diction, especially—she’s spent her childhood watching old movies with her father and so she can sometimes sound like Katharine Hepburn or a noir detective. My [excellent] editor, Jenny Alton at Counterpoint, was often highlighting phrases, asking, “Is this a thing people say?” And I’d say, “Yes, but mostly in movies between 1930 and 1945.” Denny has linguistic idiosyncracies, as we all do. 


When writing a new draft, whether it be for a novel or short-story, is there any particular process or ritual that you find yourself following?

I am not a ritual-based creature. I do my work when I can, where I can: in the Notes app on my phone while walking or taking the bus or during a show or walking through a museum. On my laptop at the kitchen table or at my desk or on the couch or sitting on the floor in the middle of a forgotten meal. I used to be specific about it all, about my process: longhand, type up, print out, mark up, commit edits to file, etc. But I found the ritual got in the way of the desire. It made excuses and delays. Now I just write.


Is there any particular work(s) of literature that you find yourself going back to often, whether it’s for pleasure or inspiration? 

I think a lot about Charles Portis’s True Grit, which is a first-person Western narrated by a vengeance-seeking young girl. When I pass it in the library, as I did yesterday, I wave. That is my favorite kind of relationship to have with a book or other piece of art. To know that I once felt potently about it, that it once felled me, and to be able to remember the feeling upon seeing it again. I think that is why most writers keep such large book collections: They are biographies or photo albums of previous ardor. 


Lastly, do you have any particular words of advice that you would like to share with other writers that will be reading this?

Try not to worry about writer’s block. Last year I saw Sarah Manguso speak on a panel, and she mentioned that the U.S. is the only place where people talk about writer’s block. It’s a capitalist obsession about productivity, which has very little to do with art and how it’s made. Everywhere else, writers write when they can, and don’t make it into a pathology when they can’t. Of course, I was telling this to a friend at a party last night, and she—rightly—pointed out that in some places, writers are financially supported, or at minimum have universal health insurance. Why worry about writer’s block, in that case?


But it is likely, as a writer in the States, you will have to do something else besides write in order to house and feed yourself and take care of your body and possibly take care of others, be they elder or minor. In this case, you will probably have to worry less about writer’s block, and more about time to write. Take the time consistently, even if it is in those interstitial times, on the bus or in a waiting room, to write or at least to read. It does not have to be the same hour every day. If the language doesn’t come for a while, don’t let it drag on you. It will come back. Also: if the thing you do to house and feed yourself, etc., helps others to do the same, or to make art, or to help others, all the better. 


Interview by Carlos Joshue Reyes


Christine Maul Rice

On her book, Swarm Theory


I first discovered Christine Rice last year in my novel in stories class here at Columbia College Chicago. We were assigned to read her novel, Swarm Theory, and I was hooked by the first page. I remember reading past what we were assigned to read each week because it was so hard to put the book down!

The characters that Christine writes about are so genuine and real. I found myself having empathy for each and every one of them, even the ones I didn’t particularly like. The way she switches between character’s view points with each of the short stories that make up this novel is so effective and really brought every single character to life. I was so glad to get to interview her and wrack her brain a little bit.

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I’d like to begin this interview by talking about your writing process. Do you have a specific ritual when you sit down to write? Is there a certain place or time of day in which you tend to do all of your writing?

I approach my writing as a job that just so happens to be creative. Writing forces me to conjure worlds and situations and characters—it’s hard mental work. But I grew up working as a cashier in my uncle’s grocery store (from the time I was sixteen until I graduated from college), and I remind myself that there are physically demanding jobs and then there are mentally-demanding jobs. I used to come home from eight hours of cashiering feeling exhausted and beat down. Eight hours of writing is also exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating and challenging and I realize how privileged I am to even be able to write. 

As far as digging into my mental process, sometimes I know the situation and character well (when it is loosely based on my own experience as most of my fiction is). Sometimes I’m developing everything as I write (and I have to put in a lot of research). When I write a chapter or short story, I don’t use an outline. I prefer to let the events unfold organically on the page. I often feel like a chapter or short story won’t reveal itself fully until I think about it or approach it in a different way (revise, revise, revise). For my novels, I have a general idea of what I need to accomplish in each chapter. In other words, in this chapter, I need to establish A, B, and C. Does that make sense?

Since I wear a lot of hats—writer, editor, teacher, nonprofit & magazine founder—I approach writing in the same way I approach my other roles: I need to focus fully and completely. I can’t listen to music. I have to put my VIEW mode on FULL SCREEN. I usually get our youngest daughter off to school and then I make a cup of tea and get to work. I try my damndest to write in the mornings, but some days it doesn’t work out because there are other pressing matters to attend to or I’m teaching. If that’s the case, I try to get an hour or so of writing in in the afternoon.

I’m best and freshest in the morning. I was recently at Vermont Studio Center for a residency and I would get up at 5:30 am and write until about lunch. Six hours of generating new material is about my limit. After that, I work on editing and revising, or move on to preparing my class outlines or working on the website or literary magazine.


What do you do when you fall into a writer’s block?

Since I approach writing and editing as a job and since I was a freelance writer and worked as a corporate writer, I’ve never had the luxury of not writing. In other words, my survival depends and has always depended upon writing (or editing and teaching) in one form or another. If you have a non-writing job, you wouldn’t go in to work and say, “You know what? I’m not feeling this job today.” You’d be fired, right? So I don’t give myself that option. When I worked as a freelance writer, I couldn’t tell my editor that I would miss a deadline because I had writer’s block. When I worked in a corporate environment, I couldn’t tell my boss that the copy due to our client wasn’t finished because I had writer’s block. 

I constantly remind myself how privileged I am to be able to read and write and edit and make books and teach for a living. That’s not to say that I don’t have long stretches when I’m not able to write (because of other pressing work). In other words, I do not have a life that allows me to work on my fiction every single day, all day. I have a family. My ninety-six-year-old mother lives with us. I have a dog that needs to be walked. I copyedit and offer writing coaching services. I run a nonprofit and teach and have to fundraise to keep that nonprofit running. As hard as I try to write every morning, it just doesn’t always work out. I might have to write a grant for the nonprofit. Or teach. Or respond to my writing coaching clients. Not writing is incredibly frustrating to me but it’s part of the deal. Also, when I’m emotionally beat down, I don’t have the concentration or energy to write. So I guess I’m saying that my goal is to write every day but I have accepted that I will not be able to write what I want to write every day. I might have to write a grant or write a report. In the end, though, I’m still writing.

I’m happiest when I have a full morning ahead of me to write. On those days, when the words aren’t flowing, however, I write through it. I write a scene or a part of a scene, no matter how crummy I think it is, and then I go back at it the next day or the following week or in a month to revise and finish it. 


Who are some of your favorite writers? Which writers have been an inspiration to you and your writing?

Oh, wow. So many writers! It seems like an unfair question but I’ll start with Flannery O’Connor, Robert Penn Warren, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tennessee Williams, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Babel, Katherine Ann Porter, and Katherine Mansfield. There are so many contemporary writers I admire including Jesmyn Ward, Patricia Ann McNair, Christine Sneed, Paulette Livers, Desiree Cooper, Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore, Louise Erdrich, Lynne Sloan, Barrie Jean Borich, Claire Vaye Watkins,  Tara Betts, Shawn Shiflett, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Eric May, René Steinke, Chaya Bhuvaneswar, Karen Halvorsen Schreck, Cyn Vargas, Megan Stielstra, Zoe Zolbrod, Gina Frangello, Rebecca Makkai, Eileen Pollack, Tim O’Brien, Toni Nealie, John McNally, Peter Ferry, and Eugene Cross. My full list would probably take up an entire journal!


I know that you are the editor for the literary magazine, Hypertext. Do you feel like working as an editor and reading submissions that come in from all types of people all around the world has helped you grow as a writer?

Absolutely. Actually, I taught at Columbia College Chicago for over twenty years and served as the Hair Triggerfaculty editor for twelve years. That’s when I really honed my writing and editing skills (and, of course, I continue to hone those skills). I love being able to look at a story and identify what’s working—or point out where it might be going off the rails. The act of reading is the way I grow as a writer. I think to myself, “I really like what XYZ writer did with [voice, tone, movement, structure, etc]. I might try that.” Or after I read something, I might look at the structure of that book or chapter or short story more carefully and try parodying that movement. 


What tips do you have for writers who are trying to get their work published?

First off, read the publication to which you submit and be familiar with that magazine’s aesthetic. And please, please, please read the submission guidelines. You would be surprised how many people have no idea of what we publish. Or how many people contact me to ask how to submit. Or wholly disregard our submission guidelines. Of course, like most journals, our submission guidelines can easily be found under the SUBMIT tab (haha). I get so many Facebook messenger requests about submitting that I finally stopped answering them. It just seems so lazy to me that someone wouldn’t put the time in to look at our magazine before submitting. 

Also, proofread your work. Read it out loud. Figure out where it is dragging or where there is unnecessary information. Approach it professionally. Be honest about your bio. If it will be your first publication, say so. Most editors don’t read the bios first. They read the story first and then, if they like the work, they’ll look at the bio. 

Shake off rejection. It’s part of being in the creative field. I wish someone had told me this when I was in high school! Failure is part of the process. Do not get mad at the editor. Do not tweet about the publication. Just move on. Take a look at this interview with writer John McNallyand read his book, The Promise of Failure. In it, he talks about the importance of failure, how to embrace failure, how to make it work for you. 

And remember that what editors accept or don’t accept is so subjective. Some journals have slush pile readers who are still in college. Some have older readers. Different writing appeals to different people. It’s just so subjective. And confusing. But being a writer requires a certain amount of desire and devotion and stick-to-it-ness. Know that if you submit something to one journal and it’s rejected, try another journal. You might get a more sympathetic read.


I’d like to bring up your novel, Swarm Theory, next. This novel is written in the novel-in-stories format. What made you decide to write this novel in this format rather than the traditional novel format?

I didn’t know that Swarm Theory was going to be a novel-in-stories until I got about halfway into the writing. I simply couldn’t get away from the characters! They kept popping up in new situations and informing new material. Finally, I realized that all of the characters were linked but, as you know from reading it, I didn’t write Swarm Theory in chronological order. It’s not structured as a traditional novel and it wasn’t written as a traditional novel. When I realized that it was shaping into a novel-in-stories, things started to take shape with the overall narrative. I’ve found that, even with a traditional novel structure, I don’t really know what the overall narrative arc will look like until I’m about one hundred to one hundred and fifty pages into it. 


Swarm Theoryproved to be like putting a puzzle together. I knew that this and this and this probably happened to Character A to make her act the way she did, but I wanted to listen to the voices of different characters telling their sides of the story. For me, as for many writers, there are so many ways to look at a situation. I wanted to get that sense of nuance on the page. When I had finished the novel, I went in and shifted a lot of the chapters around to fit in the specific sections and to firm up the overall narrative arc. I then went in and wrote scenes/chapters to fill in gaps. 


The stories that make up the novel, Swarm Theory, are told from many different points of view and are not told in chronological order. What was your process for organizing and arranging these stories into the order they ultimately ended up in?

This is a story I’ve told a few times but I’ll tell it again….

When I finished Swarm Theory, I started sending it around to agents. In the meantime, I ‘accidentally’ met the founder of University of Hell Press at AWP, Washington. I was looking over the books in their booth and said, kinda to myself, “Your authors are way cooler than me.” And the person setting up the booth, who happened to be the publisher, Greg Gerding, laughed and asked me what my book was about and I told him and he told me to send it to him. I did, thinking I wouldn’t hear from him.

In the interim, an agent responded to say that she ‘loved’ the writing but didn’t feel like she could sell Swarm Theoryif it wasn’t in chronological order. So she asked me to rearrange the chapters in chronological order…which I thought was weird and counterintuitive, but I did it because she is/was a good agent and I wanted my book to be published. 

After a few months, Greg contacted me to say that his editor loved my book and that they wanted to publish it. I was floored and ecstatic but when his editor asked me if I’d worked on the book in the meantime, I said, “yes” and I sent her the chronologically-ordered book. She read it and emailed: “WHAT DID YOU DO TO YOUR BOOK! MAKE IT THE WAY IT WAS!”

I, of course, had kept the original and sent it to her.

All this to say that this writing game is so subjective. What works for one reader/editor might not work for another.

I wrote all of the chapters and then set them down on the floor, from one end of our house to the other. Our house is on a city lot and our upstairs hallway extends through the entire length of the house. So I put them down and walked around, and moved the cat who seemed to love to lay on certain chapters, and kept moving things around. And then it seemed like it needed more structure. So then I started thinking about theories…and then I started thinking about the scientific method (observe, formulate, examine, result) and that spoke naturally to what was happening in the overall narrative. So I rearranged the stories to fit into those sections.


I know that you are in the process of writing a new novel. Will this also be written in the novel-in-stories format?

This new novel is a traditionally-structured novel told in a close third-person. I wrote one other novel before Swarm Theory(one that was never published) and so this is my second traditional novel. 


What else can you tell readers about your upcoming novel? When can we expect it to be released?

I’m superstitious so I won’t go into details, but it is very closely based on my life. It’s a dark comedy about the breaking up of a family (and coming together again), a parent with dementia, a parent who left and came back after two decades, caring for aging parents, and the difficulty of living in the modern world. How’s that for summary?!

Thank you for your thoughtful questions and for taking an interest in my work.


Interview by Alexis Bowe


Bio: Christine Rice’s novel, Swarm Theory, was awarded the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award (Honorable Mention, Traditional Fiction), an Independent Publisher Book Award or ‘IPPY’ (Silver for Best First Book), and a National Indie Excellence Award – Winner (Regional Fiction – Midwest). Swarm Theory also made PANK’s Best Books of 2016, was included in Powell’s Books Midyear Roundup, the Best Books of 2016 So Far, and was called “a gripping work of Midwest Gothic” by Michigan Public Radio’s Desiree Cooper. Most recently, Christine’s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in MAKE Literary Magazine, BELT’s Rust Belt Anthology, The Literary Review, American University of Beirut’s Rusted RadishesF MagazineRoanoke Review, and Bird’s Thumb, among others. Her essays, interviews, and long-form journalism have appeared in The RumpusMcSweeney’s Internet TendencyThe Big Smoke, The Millions, the Chicago Tribune, Detroit’s Metro Times, among other publications, and her radio essays have been produced by WBEZ Chicago. Christine taught in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department for over 20 years, is currently the managing editor of Hypertext Magazine, and director of the social justice storytelling nonprofit organization Hypertext Magazine & Studio (HMS).

Photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux


Jay Bonansinga

On writing novels, for TV, and film


Within media, whether it’s books, TV, film, or even video games, diversity has been slowly but surely changing for the better. How do the creators of these different mediums feel? How have they contributed to diversity within their work? Horror writer, Jay Bonansinga, and I discussed this one day over the phone.


Jay is probably one of the nicest horror writers you’ll come across; a very friendly guy who also happens to know how to give you a mini-heart attack. As a New York Times bestselling author with twenty-five novels under his belt, eight of those include the infamous The Walking Dead novels, he is one to admire. With as many books as he has, there are so many different characters to get to know and so many stories to be told.

From his first novel, The Black Mariah, featuring Lucas Hyde, an African-American man and Sophie Cohen, a Jewish woman, to his YA novel, Lucid, with Lori Blaine, a Goth teenage girl, to the infamous Lilly Caul in The Walking Dead books, Bonansinga has written some diverse stories within the horror genre.


Whether it’s The Walking Dead novels, or Lucid, or any of your other novels, how do you feel they have contributed toward diversity in literature?

Well, it’s always been a part of my big theme, really. I’m not really sure if I can define what the themes of my books truly are, because I don’t think that’s even a role for an artist to talk about, or what themes they’re exploring. I won’t try to do that but I will say that when I was in school, I had some really good teachers.


They were not only progressive and all in favor of inclusivity and using all cultures and exploring all cultures and ways of life in literature but, they were also really cool about letting their students write about whatever they wanted to. Because you hear this phrase, “Write what you know” a lot, and I get it. I understand where it comes from, but if we who write fantasy took that to heart and took it literally, we would not be able write about outer planets, other worlds, other dimensions, ghosts, vampires, or zombies—I had some reallygood teachers.


The first book I wrote was The Black Mariah and on the surface it was a horror, fantasy, supernatural thriller but beneath the surface the two main characters were black and Jewish and their grudging relationship – an African-American man and a Jewish woman – and they really loved each other but they denied it and fought it and I realized that this was what was driving the horror story. I realized it was connected – the African-American man and the Jewish woman. From that point on I tried to use race, and sexuality, and sexual preference – all that stuff in my books, which is probably another reason why I resonated for [Robert] Kirman in The Walking Dead. Because, what I did in a broad general sense for The Walking Deadwas basically flesh out this woman, Lilly Caul.


You know, just take this character of Lilly Caul from the comic book who was an unknown quantity. Nobody really knew where she came from, nobody knew anything about her. She shows up in the comic book and she’s only in the comic book for about. . .maybe a dozen panels and that’s it. And she kills The Governor; she comes in and changes the whole mythology of The Walking Dead and then she vanishes. And so, as a male writer I get what most people would say, “Oh, I don’t really have the capability of doing that, of creating this really three-dimensional, richly crafted female character” because in school they told me to “write what I know,” you know? And I’m a man, I’m not a woman, you know?  How the hell would I know? And you have to have the courage to do that.

 I was in college when I sold my first short story to a professional market and actually got paid. When I got the acceptance letter, the editor who was a woman, Peggy Nadramia, one of the great horror editors, said, “Yeah, I’m really happy to tell you I’m gonna buy this story for my magazine, Grue, and just in case, your initials…” (Because at that time I just went by my initials; I was just J. R. Bonansinga). “In case your initials mask a female gender, we’re having a future issue called, ‘Women in Horror’, and we’d love you to submit that.”


And I’m like, “Okay, I think I can do this. This is good.” Because my first published story was about a mother and a grandmother and how their relationship was with their childand you know, I was writing about women. I was using my imagination and women from my own life.

I’m not even sure if I’m answering your question [laughs].


No, no, you definitely are.

But it’s huge. I mean it’s huge for most of the great horror writers. The great horror writers are really into this kind of utopian view of the universe in many cases, you know? There are George Romero movies like Night of the Living DeadDay of DeadDawn of the Dead. They usually end up with a group of people of all races and creeds and colors and sexuality. And I think that influenced Kirkman to create The Walking Dead which, also, that’s the strength of The Walking Dead is that, The Walking Dead is about stripping away all the prejudices and norms of civilization until all you have is just the primal survival.


So, there are really no more color boundaries, you know, there really are no racial issues anymore. It’s all about survival and that appeals to a lot of people. I think we have so many fans and it’s impossible to say what the average fan is of The Walking Dead. They’re all over the map. They’re every color, every race. They’re grandmothers, they’re little kids, they’re entire families. It has that feel to it and I think horror is one of those genres that’s just super, super, primordial. Just seminal, that’s essentially human behavior and extreme, you know? I think it appeals to a wide range of people so you see a wide range of heroes and characters in horror.

I mean, there’s a lot of women horror writers that have shaped the whole genre. I’ve always thought that. I’ve been helped along the way by women just as much as men. Tina Jens is a woman that mentored me and helped me. Then there are others like Nancy Collins, who’s a great, goth, cool, hipster, horror writer and I was always a huge fan of hers and I got to meet her and get to know her a little bit.  I’m sorry that’s a really long answer to your question [laughs].


No, that’s great. That actually leads into my next question which is, who are some authors you admire that you feel have helped with diversity in literature?

Harlan Ellison is another guy that really influenced me and helped me and when I got to know him, I learned so much from him. Peter Straub, is another guy that I’ve read and admired and when I got to know him he helped me out. God, there’s so many. I mean, you have to be a big reader if you’re going to be a professional writer, I always thought.


While diversity is becoming more and more apparent in literature and in other forms of media, creators have to keep pushing forward in that movement. Writers, of course, need to write more diverse plots and characters, but what do you suggest readers do to bring more awareness to diverse characters in speculative or horror fiction? Or what have they done to support these stories?

This is a fascinating question. I think readers already bring diversity through their own experiences. They overlay a template of their own culture that often enhances the reading process. Because the bottom line for all readers is that they complete the imagery and feelings in their own psyches.


For readers to get the opportunity to support, publishers have to first accept said stories. How can we get publishers interested in these stories without them complaining that it’s “not relatable”? I’ve heard this to be the case on why stories aren’t published sometimes.

I’ve always believed that the more specific a story is – or “diverse” – the more universal it is. And I think the best publishers know this, and act on this, and are attracted to diverse stories. I think it was Duke Ellington who said, “There’s only two kinds of music…good music and bad music.” I think the same applies to stories.

Interview by Courtney Gilmore 


Jay Bonansinga’s latest Walking Dead novel, Return to Woodbury, is out now. See the dynamic Lilly Caul in action and look out for future novels from Jay Bonansinga. Meanwhile, think of ways you as a reader can support more diverse works and if you’re a creator, help bring those diverse stories into fruition, so the change keeps growing and growing just as Bonansinga has done with his works.


Patricia Ann McNair

On her book, These Are the Good Times: A Chicago gal riffs on death, sex, life, dancing, writing, wonder, loneliness, place, family, faith, coffee and the FBI (among other things)


Patricia Ann McNair talks about her most recent book of essays about death, sex, life, dancing, writing, wonder, loneliness, place, family, faith, coffee, and the FBI (among other things).  Patricia Ann McNair’s most recent book is an essay collection called And These Are the Good Times: A Chicago gal riffs on death, sex, life, dancing, writing, wonder, loneliness, place, family, faith, coffee and the FBI (among other things.) Her short story collection, The Temple of Air, was awarded Book of the Year by Chicago Writers Association and Southern Illinois University’s Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award. She is the director of undergraduate programs in creative writing at Columbia College Chicago.

I first met Patricia Ann McNair in class, as my professor teaching advanced fiction, but her reputation preceded her. I was excited to be in her class and learn from her, and she has far exceeded my expectations. Interviewing her in tandem with being in her workshop class has allowed me to see the multi-faceted talent that she is; both teacher and writer.  I interviewed her about her newest book of nonfiction essays, AND THESE ARE THE GOOD TIMES: A Chicago gal riffs on death, sex, life, dancing, writing, wonder, loneliness, place, family, faith, coffee, and the FBI (among other things). If you think the title says it all, just wait until you read the book itself and what Patricia Ann McNair has to say about it.


Your book AND THESE ARE THE GOOD TIMES: A Chicago gal riffs on death, sex, life, dancing, writing, wonder, loneliness, place, family, faith, coffee, and the FBI (among other things) truly does address all the things that it promises in the title. How did you decide what you wanted to put into this book? 

I probably think about each of these topics at least once a day, and many of them overlap for me. I find loneliness in many places, drinking coffee, thinking about the death of family and friends. These things, too, fill me with wonder, and wonder leads me to the writing. Dancing and faith come from the same impulse the way I see it, and my family, father, especially, but not only, has a complicated relationship to the FBI. You get what I am trying to say here. To me, these “riffs” are interlaced in many ways.  As I was collecting them (and one might say this is more a book of collected essays or riffs, as opposed to a collection of essays, which is often more focused and deliberately circles one or two themes and not more than a dozen as my book does), it was almost harder for me to choose things to leave out than to put in. They all seemed linked to me, they repeat a lot of the same defining moments from my life, but switch up the vantage point some. 

Most of these pieces have been published, some in more than one place, a few have garnered some awards. When I finally started to collect them in one place, I had a lot of arranging and rearranging to do, and a few holes to fill with new essays written specifically for the book (“Roger the Dodger,” about my grief and guilt over my brother’s death and life, is one of these) and then I went back to my subtitle (“A Chicago gal…”) and added and subtracted from that until I felt as though I pretty much covered everything with it. Still, the “among other things” allows me even more latitude, because to me, a good essay cannot be boiled down to just one theme, one thing to be about. There has to be a broadening of the scope in an essay for it to gain resonance, the way I see it. And that sort of opening, discovery, possibility, is always what I am trying to achieve.


In a few essays from the book, you say they were written in the late 90s—what was it about these essays and these topics that you kept coming back to?

I first started to explore creative nonfiction in the 1990s. I didn’t know what it was before that; I thought nonfiction was just sort of history and journalism, literary criticism (that I had no patience for) the epiphanic personal essay that we studied in high school and freshman comp and lit. Nonfiction (even creative nonfiction, a name that a lot of nonfiction writers do not approve of, but I like) can be those things—history, journalism, criticism, personal essay—and more, and that is appealing to me. I had a few things happen in my life—mostly to do with my early years and family—that I carried with me all the time, and rightly so. I don’t mean this in any sort of victim mentality, or let-me-tell-you-about-this-bad-childhood-I-had kind of way, but events that I would think about, look at, consider in relation to who I am now, wonder at how they formed me. My father’s death when I was a girl, a summer I spent in Honduras as a volunteer when I was 17. Losing my virginity, coming from a religious family whose religion pretty much stopped with the generation before my parents. Who wouldn’t think of these things if they experienced them.

As part of my day job as a professor at Columbia, I was on a committee that did research on Creative Nonfiction as a potential course for our students, and the more I read about it and of it, the more I realized that it would allow me to explore these things from my own experience in ways my fiction wouldn’t. And even so, you would be able to spot similar topics or ideas in my fiction as you can in my nonfiction (absent fathers, complicated families, faith) because these are the things that I think about. Always. They are part of my DNA, I guess. New things are added to my wonder, to my mulling over, but a few things—like those topics of my early pieces—are always there, hanging out in the corners.   


What did you learn from writing and publishing your first book, the collection of short stories titled The Temple of Air, that you utilized while writing and publishing your new book?

The Temple of Air is much more linked than these essays are. The stories are not totally dependent on one another, but if you read them all in the order in which I organized them, you would see the logic of the book as a whole, would learn more about the recurring characters. And from the beginning I knew that I was working on—if not a novel in stories, because it isn’t quite that—then a linked story collection. Each piece in there was written with the others in mind. And These Are the Good Times, with few exceptions, was written piece by piece, meant to stand on its own. That made it a little hard for me when I started to envision this collection, because my only experience with my own book-making was to be ultimately very purposeful in the way I built one thing onto another. I don’t mean that I wrote the stories one after another as they appear in the collection, but I did always think about how they would work together. 

When I started to think that these nonfiction pieces could be a book, I had to let loose in a way that sort of mirrors the writing of an essay. Meaning, this thing does not precisely inform this next thing, this is not exactly about the same thing. I think of this book as more scattershot, ultimately, than my collection of stories is. I go back to that idea of “among other things.” 

I think what I’ve said so far here is what I learned while writing the stories was not so useful to me while writing And These Are the Good Times. What has been useful to me, is always useful to me, is relying on my sense of story, my devotion to narrative. I am not so much an idea writer as I am a story writer, and from the stories I tell—in my nonfiction, especially—I come to understand the ideas I am exploring. I don’t understand everything about them, I don’t really come to conclusions, but I do begin to understand the questions they pose.

And publishing—well, I had a fabulous experience working with the independent publisher Elephant Rock Books for The Temple of Air. Very hands-on. And that prepared me for this one, too, working with another fine indie publisher, Side Street Press. It is a very collaborative experience, and one I understand I need to jump into wholeheartedly, because that is what I had to do the first time. This means packing books into my trunk and hitting the road occasionally, it means a lot of social media chatter (much more so than even six years ago with the first book), it means recognizing that I have to feel responsible for the business side, too, not just the fun part, the creative side. 


Your first essay in the collection, “And These Are the Good Times,” talks about your love of jukeboxes. Theoretically, if you were stranded on an island with one jukebox that only had three songs in its library, what would they be? (You would, of course, have unlimited dimes on this island to play the songs.)

Wow, fun question! And you know that if you asked me this same question in a couple of days, the answer would probably change, but I will try.  First would be Frank Sinatra singing Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” because that was the song my dad used to sing to me. The second would be “Trista Pena” by the Gipsy Kings. Sad pain. Because I love Latin rhythms and the amazing vocals in this song. And this piece is achingly beautiful, it creates in me (and probably others) an emotional response I would love to be able to capture in my writing. Like, this hurts, but pain can be lovely, too. Lastly, it would have to be disco song, because disco is so much part of my young adulthood, my formative years. Maybe “Young Hearts Run Free” by Candi Stanton, but played really fast. It would make me move and would make me happy. You know, you can go into a grocery store in just about any part of the world, and if they are playing music, they are probably playing American disco. Maybe because of what I said—it can make you happy, and something as tedious as buying potatoes and dishwashing liquid can be sort of fun if you are happy. 


In the essay “Coyote on the Sidewalk” you wrote: “That coyote, I thought, unexpected and slightly exotic on the city sidewalk, was going to be a metaphor for the wild possibilities in even the most pedestrian (sidewalk, get it?) of stories…. But as happens with all of my writing, I don’t really know what it is about until I have written it. So let me see.”  That essay continues on to contemplate its own meaning, unplanned. What part of your book surprised you the most, and why?

Perhaps it is the brief memoir piece “Dentist Day,” about when I was in Honduras at 17. This was a story I wrote as fiction about a real experience in my very first writing class at Columbia College Chicago in the 1980s. It surprised me that I would come back to it almost thirty years later, and that it would still be as vivid to me in my memory now as it was so much closer to the event. And who knows if that is because the memory is accurate in its vividness, or if it is the time and distance that allows me to recreate the memory in a newly aware sort of vibrancy. In any case, it feels real and recent to me, the way I see the clinic where I worked in my mind’s eye, the smells of the place, the people. I know that the writing of the experience moved it from the past to the present for me, the lens drew things closer, I could see better. 


Lastly, do you have any plans for your next project? 

I am at work on a novel now. In what I hope to be the very nearly final draft of it. Climbing the House of God Hill. It is set in the same fictional small town as The Temple of Air is, and it is told through multiple voices and points of view. I am working with characters in first person in a way I haven’t before, and it is an exhilarating challenge for me. Fingers crossed I am on the right path.

Interview by Zoe Raines

Keyword/Tags: Patricia Ann McNair, And These Are the Good Times, Chicago, Death, Sex, Life, Dancing, Writing



Luis Tubens (aka Logan Lu)

On writing of the present, creating inclusion, and how gentrification treats gentrifiers out of long-term residents


Luis Tubens, a.k.a “Logan Lu”, was born in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood and raised in Logan Square. In 2014, he earned a B.A. in Communications, media and theater from Northeastern Illinois University. He is the 2017 Artists-in-Residence at Oak Park Public Library. Luis has performed poetry across the United States including with the GUILD COMPLEX, Tia Chucha Press, and the National Museum of Mexican Art, as well as toured Mexico City in 2016. He has also held workshops for the residents of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and students in the Chicago Public Schools. On stage, he has opened for notable acts including Saul Williams and Calle 13. In 2014, Luis Tubens joined the acclaimed Mental Graffiti National Poetry Slam Team which represented Chicago at the National Poetry Slam. He is the author of Stone Eagle (2017) published by Bobbin Lace Press, Chicago. Currently, Luis is the resident poet for ESSO Afrojam Funkbeat (2016 Best New Band and Best International Music Act,Chicago Reader) and is featured on both of their last two albums. 

Your book Stone Eagle, speaks of your experience growing up as a Puerto Rican male in the Chicago’s neighborhood of Logan Square, however, your book doesn’t fully talk about your past life but rather your present life and where you fit in the neighborhood today. Why did you choose to start here?

 I do have some poems in the book that refer to my life growing up in Logan Square, for example; “Get ‘Em”, “Piragua Man”, and “Rent is Due” are poems from my childhood through early 20’s. However, the bulk of the poems do speak more about my later and more recent experiences. I hoped to make the book a current lens instead of just memories. The book in this way is more of an active camera rather than a photograph.

 Your piece “Red is Rojo” is written almost entirely in Spanish with no translations offered. This reminded me of Junot Díaz’s thoughts on not needing to be a “native informant” for readers. In “Ode to the Piragua Man” you translate some of the Spanish words used. Why did you choose to translate this piece?

 I have received many questions about this same issue. My intention with providing a glossary of words with “Piragua Man” was to give readers, Puerto Rican or not, a full understanding of this experience. I use words that are specifically Puerto Rican but I want everyone to relate to the poem. With “Rojo is Red” I am writing to Latinos raised in the U.S. It is almost a coded poem for a secret club of people that share this experience. I of course want everyone to understand the piece but the intended audience for that poem would not need it translated. In retrospect, I think that providing a translation for one poem and not another serves more to confuse the reader and that is the last thing I want. I think, at the time, I was approaching the poems as individual pieces rather than a collection. I most likely will fix this in future editions.

You write about Logan Square’s gentrification but also how you are a “Gentrifyer”. What do you mean by this?

In the poem “Stone Eagle” I wish to draw attention to the changing neighborhood but also to our roles in this change. By “our” I am speaking of the members of the neighborhood that consider themselves natives of the neighborhood but actively contribute to the gentrification that is destroying it. I also want to examine the benefits that long-time residents are reaping from gentrification, whether it be their property values increasing or internet cafés or whatever. More personally, I am talking about the artist rewards that I am taking advantage of by being a born-and-raised poet from a Chicago neighborhood. There is more credibility when you are born and raised in Chicago but the places that give you those rewards are gentrifying institutions.

Who has influenced in you in terms of what and how you write?

Wow, so many writers. Local writers like Reginald Eldridge and Mayda Del Valle, as well as writers like Carl Sandburg, Junot Díaz,  and Paul Laurence Dunbar; Hip Hop in general. I don’t know if I will ever finish answering this question.

Who are you currently reading?

Right now, I am currently reading local writers. My friends and colleagues mostly. For years I have glazed over their work and focused my attention on “established writers” but I have been making it a point to read the work of those writers that are closest to me.

What worries you the most?

 I’m not sure if you mean in general or with my poetry but I’ll answer both. The constant state of violent tension worries me. I have a 3-year-old son and thinking about him growing up in a world of such unrest frightens me. In regards to my poetry, I fear losing my inspiration. Thankfully I have yet to fall short of things to write about.

Our country’s current president loves labeling. What would you label yourself (if anything)?

Hahahh if I had to label myself I guess I would label me. . . a poet.

Interview by Maria Mendoza Cervantes 


Laura Manardo

On chemistry, fiction, and Beluga whales


Laura Katherine Manardo was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. She attended Kalamazoo College, where she was Pre-Med, and there discovered her love of writing toward the end of her freshman year. A current graduate student at Columbia College Chicago, her book of poetry, Lemon Water in Lake Michigan, was published in April of 2018. 

I first met Laura through the English & Creative Writing department of Columbia College Chicago in September of 2017 when we were placed in the same MFA Fiction workshop. Laura’s fiction writing immediately grabbed my attention. She had an incredibly poetic way of writing prose that stood out to me, and her focus on the sea and whales served as a beautiful backdrop to the stories she was telling. When I heard she was a poet, I was not surprised, and eager to know more about her writing. Laura, a natural-born storyteller, did not disappoint as we sat down to eat cookies in Columbia College’s 33 East Congress graduate lounge. 


So, have you settled on a title?


I haven’t run it by the editor yet, but I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be titled, “Lemon Water in Lake Michigan.” It’s the title of one of the poems in the collection and it is the one that kind of, as soon as I wrote it, realized … you know, this can actually be a whole thing, this can be a collection, because it kind of encompassed everything that I’ve been working on. 


How did you get started with writing?


Okay, so, I managed to escape out of almost all my English classes in high school because I didn’t like reading, and I took all science classes. I was obsessed with chemistry. Essentially, I just really wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to be a pediatrician, so I went to Kalamazoo College, because of their science program. I did pretty well—I mean, I wasn’t totally A’s, but it’s pretty hard in pre-med. So, after my first year, at the very end of my winter term I was signing up for classes and I had taken all the required classes for my first year of pre-med, so I had these three free courses. I took an Anti-Apartheid course … and it was amazing, and that was the first class that I took that I was enjoying what I was reading and writing. I also took an Intro to Creative Writing class. I had never written creatively before, except in second grade, when I wrote a short story about a woman who lived in a barn with ghosts. And, essentially, I started writing in the creative writing course and my professor kind of made a comment like, “Wow, Laura, what’s your major?” “Pre-med.” “Oh, that’s so interesting, have you ever taken any English courses?” “No, I haven’t, I wasn’t really planning on it.” “Well, you should just take a ‘Reading the World’ course.” Which was like an Intro to English course at Kalamazoo College.

So, for the reading, he asked me if I would go first, and I got an A+ in the course and I enjoyed myself more doing that than I ever had doing anything with chemistry, so I was like, “This is kind of crazy.” So then, in the fall, I was still taking the pre-med courses, but I deferred one of the credits and took a ‘Reading the World’ course. It was about classical film and I got a B in the course, but I enjoyed myself and it was very rewarding. So, I think that freshman year of college was where I really started writing and enjoying it. 


Where did the inspiration for this collection come from?


So, in my senior year of college, I took an Advanced Poetry course, with one of my favorite writers and professors of all time, Diane Suess. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her most recent collection and I honestly feel like I’m like her daughter, based on what she writes, if that makes sense? I read what she writes, and I feel like I am her child of writing! So, my final collection for that course was about marine life and the ocean, and my relationship to myself, and my relationship to men, and my relationship to the world that I live in as a woman. And so, I took two years off before starting grad school and in those two years I continued with that collection, I continued with that final project, and it kind of morphed into just different bodies of water and my relationships with men. So, it kind of follows my relationship with my father, my relationship with my brother, and my relationship with men in sexual and nonsexual ways. That’s kind of what inspired the collection. In the very beginning of my Advanced Poetry course, I had to pick a topic, and of course I love the ocean so much and I’m obsessed with whales so that’s kind of where it started, and it just kind of leached on beyond that and I saw it kind of unfold in front of me. 


What is the first book that made you cry? If a book ever has!


Yes, books have made me cry. I honestly think that the first—and it’s a short story, if that’s okay—the first short story that made me cry was “A Small Good Thing” by Raymond Carver. The reason that it made me cry is because I read “The Bath” by Carver as well, prior to reading “A Small Good Thing”, and felt not great about it, honestly. Like, okay, this is a good story, it was well crafted, but it wasn’t … it didn’t haunt me, it wasn’t something that left me feeling a certain way that I couldn’t describe, like so many short stories do. When I read “A Small Good Thing,” which is the revised version, essentially, it’s the same story, it made me realize what revision could do to a story. 

I was actually working on my senior thesis at the time, and I was totally against revision, I couldn’t open up my stories again after I’d written one version. I was like, “This is crazy, it has a beginning, middle, and end, it feels complete, it feels whole, I don’t want to mess it up.” I would be afraid to mess it up, and so I wouldn’t revise. Finally, my thesis advisor, Dr. Bruce Mills, gave me both those stories and said, “Laura, take a look and tell me which story gets to you more and why?” And I just started crying after I read the second version of it. I was kind of like, “Okay, ‘A Small Good Thing’, I get it, you have to open up a story”. Because the bare bones were there in “The Bath” but once Carver finally took it away and added all those new elements and added a new role for the baker in the story it totally shifted my feelings of revision. 


Does writing energize or exhaust you?


It energizes me, for the most part. So, I think that, in general, it energizes me because once I complete something that I feel is whole or beautiful or something that sparks something in me when I reread it or rewrite it, I’m elated, I feel finally like I’m doing something that I’m supposed to be doing. But it exhausts me sometimes if I have to write a certain amount of pages for a project or classes and I don’t get to what I need to get to in those pages. 


What period of your life do you find you write about most often?


I would say fourteen to sixteen, because that’s the first time that I fell in love. I fell in love with a boy named Evan and it was deep and pretty chaotic and I find myself falling back into that moment, a lot, of falling in love and falling out of love. I write about now, and my relationship to men as it is now. 


If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?


I would work with beluga whales! I would be a marine biologist. I would for sure go into marine biology and work with beluga whales because they’re my favorite animal in the whole world. They’re the canaries of the ocean and they deserve so much attention because there are not many of them left. 


What is your favorite childhood book?


Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. When I was going through puberty, my mom was really worried about me because I wasn’t getting along with my father. He didn’t understand that I was growing into a woman and he wanted me to be this young girl forever. He didn’t understand that I needed to be treated like a woman. So, my mom gave me that book before I started my period and it helped me understand that not everything works out the way you expect it to, but it’s going to be okay. 


Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what kind of music?


I don’t listen to music when I write. Like, at all. But, I love going to coffee shops and listening to other people speak and have conversations. It helps me, in fiction, because I’m able to think of realistic dialogue. It also helps me in poetry because of the white noise of it.


How are you feeling about this publication? 


I’m really excited! You never forget your firsts, so I think that it’s going to be something that I look back on, hopefully. I think it’s going to be really rewarding. 

Interview by Grace Smithwick


Karyna McGlynn

On her new book, Hothouse


“Nurture your obsessions”—Poet Karyna McGlynn talks about her new book, Hothouse, where she finds her inspiration, and offers some tips and tricks for new writers.

Karyna McGlynn is the author of Hothouse (Sarabande Books 2017), I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl (Sarabande Books 2009), and several chapbooks, including The 9-Day Queen Gets Lost on Her Way to the Execution (Willow Springs Editions 2016). Her poems have recently appeared in The Kenyon ReviewPloughsharesBlack Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, Georgia ReviewWitness, and The Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day. Karyna holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Michigan, and earned her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston where she served as Managing Editor for Gulf Coast. Her honors include the Verlaine Prize, the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, the Hopwood Award, and the Diane Middlebrook Fellowship in Poetry at the University of Wisconsin. Karyna recently taught in the Creative Writing department at Oberlin College and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Literature & Languages at Christian Brothers University. Find her online at

Last year you published your second book, Hothouse. What was most challenging for you while you were going through the writing/editing/production process?

The hardest part for me is trying to figure out which poems are speaking to each other and how they might come together to form something I could plausibly call a “collection.” I often feel like my poems are too thematically or stylistically diverse to live comfortably together. I wasn’t really able to conceptualize the book or figure out what should go in it until I knew what the title was. Once I came up with the title Hothouse and started thinking of the book as a series of rooms (which I was inspired to do while reading Bill Bryson’s At Homewith Grey Gardens playing in the background), the poems pretty quickly snapped in to place—both in terms of sequence and revisions. This, by the way, is exactly what happened when I put together my first book. I hope I’ve learned my lesson: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing until I have a title! It’s funny that it took so long for me to figure this out since I’m always telling my students, “If you don’t have a good title, it probably means you have no idea what your thesis is.”


In both Hothouse and I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, I noticed a lot of your poems incorporate very unique formatting choices. To what extent does form follow function in your poetry, and what value do you think that adds to a particular piece?

I’m pretty much obsessed with typography, lineation, enjambment, and white space. I would get even crazier if I thought people would like it. (As you might imagine, I aesthetically swooned when I started reading Douglas Kearney.) I’ve always loved finding ways to write poems in columns and boxes. I think it has something to do with how maximalist my style is. As a student recently told me, my poems are “very extra;” I think the formatting is a way of harnessing some of that “extra” energy and making it manageable. In terms of value it’s a mixed bag. Personally, I think there’s something interesting about forcing an “excessive” female voice inside the boundaries of a specific shape or lineation. It excites me (like a corset!), but I know it frustrates some readers, who are like, “Which way is this supposed to be read?!” And then I’m like, “Stop trying to ‘solve’ my poetry with your gender binaries!” And perhaps it’s also worth noting that I grew up in the slam poetry and drag communities in Austin. I love performing the drag of my gurlesque poetry, and I sometimes think the formatting is a way of costuming and performing on the page instead of the stage.


What was most influential for you in finding your voice as a writer?

It’s a six-way tie: Sharon Olds, drag queens, TCM, Frank Stanford, the Austin Poetry Slam in the 90s, and Robert Lowell.


Where do you find the most inspiration for your poetry? Or, where do you do your best writing?

If I’m ever feeling uninspired I go to an art museum and force myself to write a loosely ekphrastic poem in every single gallery. That usually produces some good work, or at least gets the faucet flowing again. It sounds cheesy, but my students are a big source of inspiration, as are my writer friends and stand-up comics. I spend a lot of time trying to spin embarrassments, regrets, and fears into something surreally and sonically interesting.


Just for kicks, why should people writefewer poems about bees?

Ha! Bee poems don’t bother me so much anymore, but Zach Martin and I were the editors of the literary magazine Gulf Coast at a time when there was a lot of news circulating about how bees were disappearing. While I totally agreed that this was an alarming trend (and still do), I remember getting very irritated by the huge uptick in the number of self-satisfied and baleful bee poems we received at the magazine. The more pervasive obsession for poets is birds. Too many bird poems! I’m guilty, too! At this point I just want poets to stop putting birds on their book covers.


Do you have any final comments for aspiring writers?

1) Nurture your obsessions via your writing and research (as long as you aren’t obsessed with birds).

2) Don’t be so precious about (and protective of) your early work. Just perform it and send it out. It’s probably terrible, but so what? The practice of submitting and sharing your work publicly will make you better. Just write more stuff. Write until the gold falls out of your mouth.

3) Find a group of writer friends who are better than you. Organize regular writing, editing, and submission sessions with them.

4) Try to win a poetry slam! It’s very educational. I’ve seen young writers improve ten-fold after participating in a few slams. It makes you much more aware of audience, compression, refrain, internal rhyme, rhythm, organization, ambiguity, and sensory engagement. Also, it’s fun (even when it’s terrible).  

5) Read more contemporary writers, obviously. Imitate the ones you like mercilessly. (Don’t worry; you’ll still eventually develop a “voice of your own.”)

6) Write in a journal (with a pen) during hypnogogic states—right before bed, or right when you wake up.  

7) Be weirder! 

8) Don’t “aspire” to be a writer; just be one.

Interview by Kristin Rawlings


Sam Pink

On prose, poetry, playwriting


Sam Pink is a blunt, inimitable writer with little to no tolerance for any form of bullshit. His work, whether in prose, poetry, or play format, has been celebrated in the online and indie writing communities. Pink’s work captures the sense of modern urban malaise more accurately and with more stylistic flair than most any other current author. But above all else, he’s someone who makes anyone who reads him re-think the little things. He forces you to examine the small parts that build up your life. In this interview I ask him some pretentious questions on art, writing, and his place in the world. He responds accordingly. Pink currently lives in Florida. His next two books, The Garbage Times and White Ibis, are slated for release by Soft Skull Press in May 2018.


First off, introduce yourself and your work to someone who has never read your writing.

I would say, “Hey, what’s up. I’m a writer. I write romance novels and romance poetry. You’ll probably either really like it, or be mad it exists. Either way, I’d still kill for you.”


You’ve written novels, short story collections, plays, poetry, and sometimes you’ll combine more than one style in one book. How do your first drafts take shape? Do you set out to write a novel, or a play, or a poem, or does the story itself shape how it will be told?

I don’t have any creative control. The books write themselves. I’m just the stooge. The fall-guy.


You’ve made it clear through your books and online presence that you’re a working artist – how do your day jobs inform your process?

The artist is the filter or grinder, and everything else gets pushed through it.


As well as being a writer you’re a visual artist, but your work in that field sometimes feels like the opposite of your written work. Does one form of art inform the other? Do you see yourself gravitating towards one or another at different times?

Everything informs everything, you just have to tune in and try to learn. Yeah, sometimes I just want to draw, and other times writing really bligs my snitzers.


You have an uncanny ability to tap into base emotions without any bullshit “writerly” techniques. When you read, do you tend to seek out other writers who cut the flowery language, or do you find value in the long-winded approach?

Most of one’s approach towards writing is decided long in advance by how they choose to live and think. The process of writing extends from that, no matter who you are or what you’re writing.


Speaking of other writers, you recently had a cameo in Scott McClanahan’s “The Sarah Book”. You both are often kind of fucked over when it comes to genre labels – do you think there’s any point to trying to define the kind of work you do?

Hell yeah, Scott’s awesome. I love that guy. Fuck genres man. You don’t call Scott’s writing “neo-southern emo memoir” or something, you say, “motherfucking Scott McClanahan shit.” Predate the label. 


As a person who has interacted with the so-called indie-lit world for years, what do you make of the DIY scene today, deep in the internet age?

I think we’re about to enter another really good time for online/indie/what have you, type of writing. I can feel it. It is, and always has been, a force of tension. The more tension you have, the better the artists to emerge. Greater tests, greater wagers. Big bad wounds and better healing. I also think the increasingly more boring and sterile limitations society keeps pushing on people is going to tease out the real motherfuckers. The wolf smiling in the woods listening to its crier if you will.


You’re on a reading tour in the Florida area right now – do you enjoy reading your work? How do tours impact your writing?

I really enjoy reading my work and getting out. Tours impact writing in many ways. It helps you understand your own work better. It puts you in touch with sometimes otherwise hard to find people, and I think it really reminds you of why you do shit like that. It always makes me feel like I need to do way more and be better overall, in a way that feels positive and not self-loathing.


Interview by Tom Ronningen


September 18, 2018

Tags: Sam PinkAuthorIndie LitFloridaSoft Skull PressAlt LitBligSnitzer