Robin Sloan

On embracing the “science fictional” in his latest novel, Sourdough


In this interview with New York Times Best Selling Author Robin Sloan, we talk about his influences and idols, the challenges of writing a sophomore novel, and his latest book, Sourdough.

I picked up my first Robin Sloan novel about a week before my nineteenth birthday. It was two weeks after I’d moved away for college and I was feeling particularly lost. Naturally, I’d wandered into a bookstore a couple blocks from my dorm. Sloan’s debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, practically jumped off the shelf and into my hands. This book had set the tone for my first year of college and I’m really glad to have read it.

So imagine my excitement now, as a senior in college, with yet another Robin Sloan book coming out just days before my twenty-second birthday. I’d bought it without hesitation and devoured it immediately. This time around, I’ve got a lot more experience under my belt and an email interview with the author himself! What a perfect way to wrap up my college career!

Robin Sloan is the New York Times Best Selling author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. His latest novel, Sourdough, follows the life of Silicon Valley programmer, Lois. After her favorite restaurant closes, the owners leave Lois a parting gift, the starter for their sourdough recipe. When the bread becomes a total hit at work, Lois sets her sights on getting her bread into one of the many farmers’ markets happening on around the city. While she doesn’t make it into any of the mainstream markets, she does get into the mysterious Marrow Fair, an upcoming farmer’s market where Silicon Valley meets The Food Network. Throughout the story, she struggles to find a balance between life, making bread with a robotic arm, and the mystery of the Marrow Fair.


You are a man of many talents in my opinion. Not many other people can boast that they write, code, and make olive oil (and I’m sure even fewer people can do them all at once). You’ve also worked on a literary magazine of your own creation. But to start things off, I do want to focus on your beginning. How did you get into writing? Were there any authors or stories that inspired you particularly?


Robin Sloan: Like any voracious reader, there are too many to name! Some books and feelings are with you almost from the start, though. Ellen Raskin’s Westing Game is one of the first books I can remember loving—I probably first read it when I was 10 or 11?—and across many years and many readings, there’s just something about it—the suspense, the puzzle, the spirit. I hope some trace of that is present in all my books.


With technology and society changing at a rapid pace, a lot of people have been forced to find new and innovative ways to get their creative work out there. You call yourself a media inventor. How has this influenced your writing?


Robin: Like a lot of people my age—I’m 37—I feel like I grew up with the internet, and I’ve always had curiosity about computers and how they work. The result has been that the challenge of being a writer and writing on the internet has always felt, if not easy, exactly, then at least welcome: I’ve always been eager to try new formats and figure things out.


I have to ask (and I’m sure you’ve gotten this one before) why glow-in-the-dark covers? I read in your interview with NPR that you wanted to create a physical copy worth buying, but of course, you could have chosen any number of different designs.


Robin: Well, I have to give all credit to the designer of both covers, Rodrigo Corral! In my estimation, he’s the best book cover designer working today. I didn’t even know glow-in-the-dark ink was an OPTION! But of course, as soon as it was proposed, I said: yes. I must have it. And I’ve received surprised emails from readers, time-stamped 2 a.m., ever since!


Are you the type of author who spends a lot of time researching information for your novels? If so, was Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore more difficult to research than Sourdough or vice versa?


Robin: I definitely did more research for Sourdough. I feel like the world of Penumbra was my world; I’d been researching it, in a sense, my whole life, just by being a nerd about books and computers and typefaces and everything else. As I wrote Sourdough, I was getting deeper and deeper into the world of food, but I never felt like a native: thus, a lot more reading and research.


You write fiction in a way that seems like fact. I know that in my reading of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, you could have told me that it was creative nonfiction and I might have actually believed it. The same instances happen in Sourdough, like with the existence of the Mazg or the science behind Jaina Mitra’s Lembas bread. Does this kind of matter-of-fact writing come naturally to you?


Robin: I think it does. The trick I love most of all is to tuck things into the gray space between the real and the fictional—to make people wonder, “is that really . . . ?” and then maybe hop over to Google to check. I think that’s a fun opportunity for writers in the internet-connected 21st century—something to be embraced, not avoided!


After the success of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, what was it like jumping into Sourdough? Did you find it difficult? What inspired you to write about a rather mystical sourdough starter in the first place?


Robin: I knew I wanted to write a story set in the world of San Francisco Bay Area food, simply because it’s so weird and interesting—it deserves to have stories told about it, and through it. I’d baked sourdough bread before, and as I started to piece this novel together, I realized it would be fun—well, a challenge, but a fun one—to try to make a supporting character out of a sourdough starter.


Both Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough showcase very competent women working in the tech industry. Was this something you intended from the start?


Robin: That’s a good question! In Sourdough, it was at least somewhat by design. As I introduced new characters, even really minor ones, I purposefully avoided the “default male” approach that can sometimes occur if you’re not paying attention. I have to say that I had a direct influence, which was the terrific science fiction novel Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I don’t want to say too much and give it away, but the book has a very interesting and, I thought, inspiring approach to gender.


Was Lois’ ending something you had planned from the start? It was very lovely, by the way. I don’t think I could have seen it go any other way.


Robin: I’m glad to hear it! Endings, of course, are always tricky. I didn’t have this one planned from the start, but I agree with you: I think Lois ended up in a good place. I’m glad the robot came, too. (I hope that’s a little bit enticing to people who haven’t read the book yet!)


What do you hope the reader takes away from reading your latest novel?


Robin: Oh gosh—lots of things. First and foremost, I hope they simply enjoy it. I always want my novels to deliver pleasure, at the most basic level. Beyond that, I hope they regard the microbial world with perhaps a little more awe than they did before! When I think about all the things that microbes do—for us, in us, with us—I think maybe our world is more science fictional than we realize.


August 21, 2018

Tags: Silicon ValleyRobin SloanSourdoughMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour BookstoreInterviewSan Francisco Technology


Tanya Saracho

Chicago Latina playwright, turned Hollywood TV writer


Tanya Saracho is a Mexican TV writer and playwright. After going to college for acting at Boston University she moved to Chicago where she lived for most of her early adult life. She’s been living in LA for many years but still considers Chicago her home. Saracho has written for a number of TV shows including Looking, Girls, Devious Maids, and How to Get Away With Murder. She has written many plays and was named “Best New Playwright” by Chicago Magazine in 2010.

            Her most recent work is a play called Fade. Fade follows two young Mexican and Mexican-Americans living in Los Angeles. The first is Lucia, a Mexican born writer who moves to LA to begin her career as a TV writer. There she meets Able, a Los Angeles born janitor from an immigrant family. Saracho puts a unique twist on the story of immigration and shines a new light on the writer in Hollywood. Fade ran at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago in 2017.


Was getting into theater something you always knew you wanted to do?

Tanya Saracho: I didn’t know I wanted to do theater until I fell into it by accident, it’s kind of a long story. When I first enrolled in school I had a thick accent from living in Mexico for so long and people would point out my accent and pronunciation. So when I was in seventh grade I kept seeing “Speech and Debate” posters in the halls. I thought it would be like speech therapy and if I joined, it would get rid of my accent. The very first meeting, they had me read the poem “Cinderella” by Roald Dahl. I kept going back every week and I would do voices as I read. I thought it would help with how I talked. Then the meetings turned into these competitions every Saturday, and I didn’t really know they were competitions, and I was winning with my reading of this dark Cinderella story. I thought these judges were like, speech therapists? I don’t know what I thought. I just kept going and kept doing it and I made friends. When we went into high school all of the kids who did speech and debate did drama too, so then I just joined drama and I fell in love. Like a lot of things in my life it just happened. I’m so glad I didn’t know what “Speech and Debate” was because I never would have done it.


Do you think, later in life, having an accent and being Latina limited your creative opportunities?

 Yes and no. For a long time, I didn’t notice. When I was in university I don’t think it was limiting, or maybe it could have been, and I just didn’t have the eye to see it yet. Where I grew up in Texas I didn’t really experience racism because we were all Mexican, Mexican-American, White-American but it was on the border, so everyone just understood who was around and what it was like. Then in university I needed to do Shakespeare and all those classics and they casted us all over the place. It didn’t matter who you were for a part. We could be an old lady or a little boy or anybody and that went across racial and ethnic lines. My school kind of shielded me from what was out there, and it was lovely, and then I got to Chicago. 

            I had this classical training. I went to Oxford to study Shakespeare. I had Alan Rickman and Fiona Shaw and Ben Kingsley as my amazing teachers. But in Chicago the only roles that I could get were the maids and the prostitutes. All of this was in 1998 so there was even less visibility than there is now. I couldn’t understand it. I kept saying that I have classical training! I kept being told that wasn’t going to matter because I was fat and I was Mexican so the only parts were going to be a maid or a funny prostitute, those were my choices and I thought it was bullshit. 

            The reason I built my career was because I was being affected by being Latina. I was being affected by this racism, but I didn’t just sit down and take it, I made something out of it.


You went to school for acting and you were dead set on being an actor, how did you come to be a playwright? Was that something you were interested in before?

 In the beginning I had no idea I was going to write plays. I just knew I needed to act so I was like: I’m going to write a play. I’m going to write a play so that I can act. So it did limit me in some ways but pushed open doors in others. It was the start of me creating an all Latina theater company, Teatro Luna. 

            At that time, I didn’t know anybody in Chicago, I hadn’t even been there a year so it was just me going door-to-door asking if anyone knew of any Latina actors. I went to Hispanic community centers asking for Latina actresses and there was a guy there who kept saying, “You mean Latino,” and I just kept saying no, Latina. I spoke Spanish, I knew what I was asking. He told me that starting an all-female Latin theater company would be counter-productive to the movement, but I’m so glad I was only in my twenties and didn’t listen to him. So I just kept hanging flyers and knocking on people’s doors. It was so hard for me to wrap my head around. I was in a city as diverse as Chicago, and I couldn’t find eight Latina actresses. When I finally got it going I was able to run it for ten years and it was amazing. We did all our own work and created ethnographic performances based, basically, on our own lives and as we grew, our work grew with us and I think that was one of the most magical parts of being a part of Teatro Luna.


You were able to carve out your place in Chicago but how was it in LA? Were they more welcoming and accepting? 

No. It was shitty. I was not mentally and emotionally prepared to write for television. I was doing a play and a UTA agent. (I kept calling it oota and my friends were like, “its U-T-A, dummy.”) I didn’t know shit about it. I knew about Chicago but I didn’t know anything about Hollywood. I didn’t need to know anything, and I didn’t need to be bothered with anything beyond my Teatro Luna stuff. But the agency had gotten a hold of a play I wrote called Mala Hierba, I don’t really know where they got it from, but an agent had reached out and wanted to have lunch. And in theater you never have lunch, you only have coffee. I was like, shit they wanna take me out to lunch? Yeah! This happened sometime in 2011 and I wasn’t doing that well financially, but I was super happy. None of my artist friends in Chicago are ever doing well financially but nobody knows it, they’re just happy. We’re all doing the work we want to do. We love our area, we love our friends. I loved my apartment, I loved my cats. It was a great life! 

            Then during the summer when I went out with that guy from UTA, he said he really thought I could write for television but that wasn’t anything I had ever even considered that was a thing you could do for a living. I watched The Sopranos and I watched True Blood, that was the only TV I watched at the time. So the guy just said that I had an eye that could work on TV and he said just go to LA and “take meetings” and just go to talk about myself. That’s exactly what I did, and it was so weird. You just have to go and basically charm them. I don’t know. Then one of those meetings resulted in a job. I didn’t even know that we were on that track and then the next thing I knew I was working in a writing room but I knew nothing. I couldn’t pitch, I didn’t know what an outline was, or a final draft. And in that first day they wanted me to write one act. I didn’t know what that meant because my plays were ninety-minute one acts, but they wanted five acts to fit into a one-hour TV show. 

            I was walking that first day with a coworker that I had just met and he turned to me and said, “You do know you’re the diversity hire, right?” I asked him what that meant and he just says, “Oh honey.” Like, oh you poor thing.

            I called my agent later that day to ask if I was the diversity hire and he said technically yes but he didn’t want to tell me, so it wouldn’t get in my head. I couldn’t believe it. I was the only person of color in that room. The only Latina working on a Latina show. And it was a diversity hire. I was getting paid because of affirmative action. After that I didn’t know how to contribute. Did they only want me for the Latina suggestions, was I supposed to actually contribute at all? I didn’t know what my value was. And that was just the first day!


How has your writing and writing style changed from writing plays to writing for TV?

So a one-hour TV drama is usually five acts and the commercials are at the end of each act and it was so different. I used to write one act for an hour and I never wrote for a commercial before, I thought that was so weird. In the theater I write really long scenes but on TV a scene is only like, a page or two. That was something that was really hard to adapt to. Now though, I’m trying to go back to writing for theater and I cannot write the long scenes anymore, and it’s so bad. It’s tainted my theater writing and I don’t know how to get that back. I haven’t been able to write a play in almost three years. Fadewas the last play I wrote and that was three years ago when I was still making the transition to TV but I’m still mainly a theater person. But now, I try to go back, and I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know what’s going to happen. The whole point of coming to TV was so that I would have the means to do theater. 


How much of the Mexican culture influences your writing beyond having Mexican characters?

Its changed a little bit. The play I mentioned before, Mala Hierba, had a much stronger cultural influence because the setting was closer geographically to the border. Fadeis set in LA in a film studio, but I have characters with backgrounds in Mexico so they reference Mexico all the time but they’re also American. They’re navigating what it means to be a first and second generation Mexican-American. Then I have another play, El Nogalar, that takes place in Mexico. So it all really just depends on the play but they’re all connected to Mexico whether it be close to it or far away.


Interview by Cali Lemus

July 24, 2018

Tags: Tanya SarachoLatinaTV WriterPlaywright


C.S.E. Cooney

On performance, melding politics with art, and the importance of writing and studying genre


C. S. E. Cooney is an audiobook narrator, the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine, author of World Fantasy Award-winning Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium, 2015), author of the Dark Breakers series of novels, as well as several poetry and prose anthologies such as How To Flirt in Fearieland. Cooney’s work blends inspiration from fantasy and myth, while also maintaining a fresh voice and lyrical cadence well-suited to be read aloud. I had the lucky chance to talk with her about her past and future work, as well as topics such as performance, melding politics with art, and the importance of writing and studying genre. 


You write across many forms of prose, poetry, and some enigmatic mixes of the two. Your work often falls into fantasy with roots in European folklore and mythology. Has your work always swayed towards the fantastic?

Oh, you know, I was born in 1981. My childhood was Krull and The Dark Crystal and Legend and Labyrinth and Willow and Ladyhawke and Dragonslayer and Faerie Tale Theatre and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Add to that a liberal dose of musical theater blasting about the house—Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, but above all—Stephen Sondheim!—and that’s a helluva lot of fairy tales and show business. 

I was born “swayed.” 


Your full-length novels, The Breaker Queen and The Two Paupers, are parts of the Dark Breakers series. How did you go about worldbuilding for the Dark Breakers series? Is there anything more for the series?

I started with the notion of an alternate world. Somewhere very like Earth (very like, in fact, Newport, Rhode Island, circa 1900-ish), but not Earth. I decided to stick the Dark Breakers series in the same world as some of my shorter fiction, but further up the timeline. In other words, a fantasy world that had had its industrial revolution, and its vaccine shots. 

Seafall and Southern Leressa are both mentioned in my novella “How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One,” in my collection Bone Swans. But in the Dark Breakers novellas we’ve fast-forwarded about a thousand years give or take. Whole eras have passed between the “then” of “Milkmaid” and the “now” of Dark Breakers, with great shifts in politics and technology and even mythology.

As far as world-building for Dark Breakers, I feel like I’m continually doing research on early 20th century America, and then bending that research to my will. I want verisimilitude, but I’m not interested in unadulterated devotion to fact. That’s why I write fantasy; it’s a whole different world! And it’s MINE! That means the parallels between Earth’s history and Athe’s history don’t have to be exact. I can play with patents and fashion and invention and slang. I just want the worlds to be similar enough that Athe will feel familiar and welcoming to the Earthling reader. Then I can make the really weird stuff happen. I found the books Gilded Suffragists: the New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote and The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensics in Jazz Age New York to be particularly inspiring. 


The Bone Swans of Amandale was directly inspired by the Pied Piper myth, but told with elements that you filled in yourself. How do you balance inspiration from the old with your elements of the new?

You know, a former classmate of mine at Columbia College Chicago, Luke Herman—he took some of the same playwriting courses I did—once told me that my works were “marvelous collisions.” Leaving “marvelous” aside, I think the keyword is “collisions.” That’s where the newness occurs. In the “What if?” What if I took “The Pied Piper” and rammed it at full speed into Grimms’ “The Juniper Tree” and gave it a 1st POV named Maurice the Incomparable? What if he were a RAT? That would be funny, right? 

That’s not so much an act of balance between old and new as an act of, I don’t know, cheeky alchemy. I don’t want to ever depend upon a reader’s familiarity with an old story to carry my new one. Myself, I’ve come to so many story origins backwards, and never lost a moment’s enjoyment because of that. 

For instance, I saw The Sword and the Stone first, when I was little. And then I listened to (and memorized) the musical Camelot. Only in my late twenties did I even read T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which was the seed of both the Disney cartoon and the Broadway musical. And I confess, I haven’t even read Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur yet, which is the seed of The Once and Future King. To take another example: I learned the musical Rent in high school. Later on in my teens, I was reading an old book of opera stories I’d picked up for a dollar at a library sale. I came upon the description of La Bohème, and went shouting through the house: “THIS SOUNDS JUST LIKE RENT! Look! There’s even a MIMI! Only she dies of CONSUMPTION, not AIDS!” And my dad said, “I think you’ve got it backwards.” 

If someone comes to “The Bone Swans of Amandale” before they ever encounter the myth of the Pied Piper, I want my Pied Piper to leave such a lasting impression, that when they finally stumble across the Arthur Rackham illustration, or the Brothers Grimm story, or the Robert Browning poem, or even Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (which I never even READ before I wrote “The Bone Swans of Amandale”; I named MY Maurice after the illustrator Maurice Sendak, misremembering him for Mercer Mayer in my faulty brains!), they will say, “Hey! This is just like that C. S. E. Cooney story!” 


Do you believe there is a performance aspect to your readings? Has your work as a singer and musician informed this?

I so very much believe in writers learning to perform their own work well that I sometimes teach workshops about it. Seriously, it’s called “From Page to Stage.” I’ve had the advantage of intense theatre training for most of my life—both at Columbia College, where I minored in Acting—and before that at my performing arts high school, Arizona School for the Arts, where I double-majored in Theatre and Voice. And before that, from years of children’s theatre and choir, and a captive audience of younger brothers and a mother and a best friend who listened to me read aloud, and, and . . . 

I’ve felt the double-call of vocation my whole life—as both an actor and a writer. Sometimes, I was working so many jobs, I didn’t have time to be in plays, and the only time I got to perform was my own work at open mics and fiction readings and 24 Hour Festivals. Now, I’m an audiobook narrator, so I get to read books aloud all the time—and pay off my college debt with a job in the arts. WHO KNEW SUCH THINGS WERE POSSIBLE?! I don’t get to sing in public very often anymore. Usually, I have to put on a concert as a birthday present to myself, just for the pleasure of singing my songs in front of people. Sometimes I embed songs in my text just so that I’ll get to sing them aloud at a reading. That’s sort of cheating, but that’s okay. It’s all in good fun. It’s super important to know how to read out loud well for an audience—sometimes, it’s a reader’s first impression of your work, and might inspire them to go out and pursue more of it, or recommend it to friends!


Do you think it’s important for all writers to study genre fiction, even if their own work may not be? Why or why not?

I recently heard writer and National Book Award-winner Will Alexander tell an audience, “Read widely and wildly.” I love that. Let’s do that. 

Anyway, to ignore genre is to ignore the current culture. What’s hot, what’s selling. It’s Star Trek and Star Wars and Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and Zombies and American Gods and Superheroes and Dystopias. That’s genre. Also, to ignore genre is to ignore possibility. To limit your own horizon. It’s sort of like a poet saying, “I want to write ONLY LIMERICKS. Sonnets, go sit in the corner. I don’t even want to be in the same room as those haikus. The sestinas can sleep in the barn.”  But, also, more practically: “genre” is as much a marketing term as anything else. It’s arbitrary. It changes. I studied Toni Morrison’s Beloved in one of my Fiction classes at Columbia. It’s a ghost story. It’s horror. It’s pure genre. We also read Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” in a Dreams and Fiction Class; that’s Magical Realism, a Latin American sub-genre of the Fantastic. Genre! It’s everywhere! 


Where do you think the modern fantasy genre is going? Of your peers, what themes or root texts seem to be taking center stage?

I think Modern Fantasy is at the vanguard of a larger literary movement that will be remembered as the most diverse, the most inclusive, many-voiced, many-peopled, genre-exploding, gender-bending dazzling firmament of genius and imagination that the world has yet known. I think, finally, we will begin to see literature in all genres that will reflect the world around us in all its variety, and not just the received narratives of conquerors. 

I see the roots of it now. And the burgeoning wings. And I think the artists upholding and driving this movement will take us to places even science fiction writers cannot yet imagine. 

Well, yeah, okay. Maybe them. They probably can. 

Interviewed by Bec Ucich

July 10, 2018


Bryan Gruley

On writing novels and stories for Businessweek


Interviewed by Cody Lee, Reviews Editor

I bartend at a little Irish bar on the north side of Chicago, and people come and go every day—mostly bodies without faces or names. However, I remember first seeing this fellow sitting in the back, typing away at his computer, a stack of papers by his side, and a PBR in his glass. My manager, well aware that I consider myself somewhat of a writer, too, jumped on the opportunity to tell me that that’s Bryan Gruley, a Pulitzer-winning author that lives in the neighborhood. I didn’t believe him, so I googled the name, and there it was.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and Bryan and I chat about books, and the processes of writing. I give him a drink or two free, and in return, he supplies me with some of the knowledge that he’s picked up over the years, dealing with agents and publishers, etc. etc.

He is the author of three mystery novels, and currently works as a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Cody Lee: What would you say is the difference between writing professionally and writing for fun? How would/should students entering the “real world” bridge the gap between the two?

Bryan Gruley: I don’t make much of a distinction between writing “professionally” and writing “for fun.” I suppose by the former you mean getting paid to write, but I have as much fun writing stories for Businessweek as I do making things up (for which I also enjoy getting paid). My first piece of advice to any aspiring writer is simply this: Ass in chair. Write. Write every day, whether you’re getting paid or not, whether it’s fun or not (some days are more fun than others, if you know what I mean). If you can find a forum for your writing, be it a website or a magazine or a book publisher, all the better. The only way to find the forum, though, is to write. I have a quotation taped to my laptop, supposedly from the novelist Jack London. It says, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” 

CL: First published novel—could you walk us through the steps it took to get there? What did the aftermath consist of?

BG: I’ve wanted to write novels since I was in grade school. I took a pretty serious detour to nonfiction by way of newspapers from Kalamazoo to Washington D.C., to Chicago. In retrospect, it was also a necessary detour, because I didn’t have the personal experience nor the skills to write a novel until I actually wrote one. In 2000-01, I wrote about 25,000 words of a novel that my agent did not like. There was a glimmer of hockey in it, though, and my agent said, “Why don’t you write me a story about these middle-aged guys who play hockey in the middle of the night?” I had an idea that very instant.

It took me four years to write Starvation Lake. Then I endured a year of rejections—twenty-six in all—before the Simon & Schuster imprint Touchstoneoffered me a three-book contract. That was an exciting day in 2007. The book wasn’t published for almost two years. I wish I could tell you why, except to say that the publishing industry doesn’t move quickly. Meantime, I wrote what I thought would be the second book in the series. It wasn’t very good. I basically threw it out and started over. Seven months later, I turned in The Hanging Tree, much improved. In between, I enjoyed the thrill of being a first-time author. The best part was traveling around and talking with friends old and new about the town and characters I’d created. Starvation Lake sold very well for a debut, but I wasn’t about to be able to quit my day job.

CL: What, in your opinion, is missing in contemporary literature?

 BG: I can’t really say. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but between writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, working on my next novel, playing hockey, and enjoying my family and friends, I don’t have the time to read as much as I’d like. I do read almost every night before going to sleep, but not widely enough to answer your question. That said, my favorite book of the last couple of years is a contemporary novel, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. It’s old-fashioned in the sense that it takes its time about moving the story along and developing the characters. Great story, great writing. I looked forward to picking it up every night. 

CL: What would be your critique of schooling, and how could teachers and programs (specifically, related to writing) better prepare their students for the writing community outside of a school system bubble? 

BG: I honestly don’t know enough about what’s happening in academia to answer the first part of your question, but the answer to the second one is simple: Write. Or, as my friend the essayist and novelist Brian Doyle told me years ago: 1) Ass in chair 2) Type better than sixty WPM 3) Shut up 4) Get a job. If #4 is a job that pays your bills, all the better.

CL: How important is understanding business as a writer, if at all? 

BG: If you mean the importance of understanding the business of writing—selling your articles or books or poems or whatever—you certainly need to understand how things work if you’re going it alone, say, as a freelancer. You can be less worried about the sausage-making if you work for a large company that focuses on that.

CL: Quality or quantity in regards to online publications?

BG: Maybe I’m naïve, but I think you ought to always try to do your best work. That said, sometimes you have more time or freedom or resources than you do other times. Especially when you’re just getting started, you want to get your name out there, and the more it’s out there, the more likely you are to attract readers, viewers, sources, hiring editors. Still, crappy work is crappy work, and won’t help you regardless of how much of it is out there.

CL: In your own words, what significance does “mystery” have as a genre?

BG: I am fond of arguing that most novels are essentially mysteries in which the writer poses a question that the book seeks to answer. Holden Caulfield is in insane asylum. How and why did he wind up there? Salinger tells us in the rest of that book. As a genre, though, mystery attracts huge numbers of readers. Along with their close cousins, thriller, mysteries are by far the most popular books. Alas, some are formulaic, predictable, unimaginative. But the best ones are literature: Lehane, Mosely, Chandler, Hammett. Mystic River is one of the best novels I’ve ever read (and a lot better than some of the navel-gazing drivel that the elite “literature” reviewers love so much).

CL: Who are the best writers out right now, and why?

 BG: Again, I don’t read enough for such superlatives, but in addition to Harbach’s novel, books by contemporary authors I’ve enjoyed in the past year or so include Frank Bills’s short-story collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana; Emma Cline’s The Girls; and my pal Doyle’s semi-autobiographical Chicago.

CL: Why do you write?

BG: You might as well ask why I love my wife and kids, why I get up in the morning, why I eat. It’s what makes me me.

CL: Donald Trump is our president. What is next for America? What is next for Bryan Gruley?

 BG: I won’t hazard any specific guesses, except this one, which has been played out in history time and again: the party in power will overplay its hand and the political pendulum will swing back in the other direction. As for me, I’m finishing the rewrite of a novel called The Last of Danny, about the kidnapping of an autistic boy. Wish me luck persuading a publisher to take it on.

Cody Lee has no sense of humor, and hates everyone. He’s smart, too.

June 12, 2017


Doug McGoldrick

On the passion of photography


Interviewed by William Grant

Doug McGoldrick is a fascinating man. I met him while attending Columbia College Chicago where he teaches photography classes part-time. When I took his class, I was in the process of creating a new photographic series that I was incredibly passionate about. Doug was one of the biggest influences for me during that time. His encouragement and insight helped push me to create some of my best work.

When I was assigned the task of interviewing an artist for Hair Trigger 2.0, I immediately reached out to Doug. From my time working with him, I knew he would make for an interesting interview. He’s done a bit of everything and seems to always be ready for something new and compelling. In the interview below he tells me about his passion for photography, his favorite things to shoot, and how he defines his success.

Will Grant: When did your passion for photography begin?    

Doug McGoldrick: When I was in grade school my dad was an amateur photographer, and we would sometimes go out on weekends and take nature photos together. What sparked it? Getting photos back from the camera store and seeing my photos when I was a kid was super exciting.

WG: You’ve done a wide variety of work ranging from weddings to industrial factories to motorcyclists and more. Is there one subject you’ve done that interests you the most or is there fun in always changing?

DM: For me whenever I can get to see behind the scenes someplace where most people don’t get to be, I’m happiest. I think in my heart doing documentary-type work is my favorite. I think part of it is, growing up I was very shy and bringing my camera into a place to take pictures gave me a reason to talk to people.

WG: Do you have other non-photographic hobbies and do they ever bleed into your photographic work?

DM: I do a lot of painting and drawing and they tend to go together with my photography nicely. Also bike racing and motorcycles are things I’m into, taking photos in those communities gives me an excuse to talk to people and get more involved than I would normally be.

WG: Is there a series/subject matter that you’d like to explore in your work that you haven’t yet?

DM: Oh man, so many. I would really love to go on tour with a dance company or band and shoot everything. Also any sort of big, dirty industry.

WG: You’re a part-time teacher at Columbia College Chicago. What is a key piece of advice you share with all your students? What is something unexpected or valuable that you’ve learned from your students?

DM: Lately I’ve been teaching a business of photography class and I like to let all the students know that in the photo biz moreso than almost any other, competition is incredible and to make it you need to be a person who hustles harder than the rest. I’m always learning so much from the students, a lot of it is tech stuff, but to me the most exciting thing is seeing how people’s way of seeing the world changes.

WG: How do you define success and, by your definition, do you consider yourself successful?

DM: I think if you are making your living from photography you are in a sense successful, because it’s really hard. In my head I have this picture of success where I’m not pushing myself out there for work but work is just coming to me; I don’t think I’m there and probably nobody really is. Sometimes I feel like a success, sometimes I don’t. I was talking to another photographer recently, joking about how some months you want to start driving for Lyft and some months you feel like you could buy a Tesla. It’s a strange biz but way better than going to an office every day.

See Doug’s work at

William Grant is a Photography and Fiction Writing major at Columbia College Chicago. He enjoys broccoli and Anna Kendrick.

May 01, 2017

Tags: Will GrantDoug McGoldrickPhotographerPhotographyInterviewArt EditorTeaching PhotographyBusiness of PhotographySubject MatterImpulse to CreateColumbia College ChicagoAdvice for Artists


Amina Gautier

On her book, The Loss of All Lost Things


Interview by Claire Martin

When Amina Gautier released her third short story collection, The Loss of All Lost Things, in 2016, it was quick to gain attention in the fiction community. Gautier continues to provide a refreshing and prolific take on writing short pieces in the midst of a market that seems to be driven almost exclusively by novels. Her subject material ranges from the everyday to the unimaginable, but it is all united under a visceral, inspiring umbrella of human understanding of pain.

Her two earlier collections, At-Risk and Now We Will Be Happy, have both received numerous awards, including the Flannery O’Connor Award and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. As a fictional short story writer myself, I was thrilled to be able to sit down and hear about her own approach to storytelling, the modern academic writing community, and bringing her ideas to life.

Claire Martin: Your recent collection, The Loss of All Lost Things, illustrates such a diverse range of material from kidnapping, to librarians, to the streets of Pompeii. What inspired you to bring the stories of all these people together?

Amina Gautier: I’m inspired, simply, to write. The stories sort themselves out into collections much later. I don’t consciously write a story with the intention of placing it in a particular collection; I just write whatever is on my mind, and, later, I look at what I’ve accumulated and take note of what themes are present and which stories seem to speak to one another. That’s how my three short story collections came together. Even though my most recent collection is about loss, some of these stories predate stories in the first two collections. While writing a variety of stories, I kept returning to explorations of loss because the subject is universal—we’ve all experienced loss in some form or another—but our handling of it is unique, individual and particular. That’s what makes it so compelling a topic for me.

CM: You’ve received an M.F.A. as well as a Ph.D. What did you find to be the greatest benefit of pursuing degrees in higher education as a writer?

AG: Actually, I don’t have an M.F.A. degree, just a B.A., two M.A.s, and one Ph.D. I graduated from Stanford in 1999 and aspiring writers weren’t encouraged to immediately pursue M.F.A.s then. The advice I received from multiple sources was cautionary. It warned that there were only a few great M.F.A. programs, that most didn’t offer good funding, that a recent undergrad would be competing with more mature writers who had led full lives and were now returning for the M.F.A. degree, and that it would be better for a beginning writer to go and obtain life experience for a few years while writing privately on one’s own dime, to work up a few strong stories and then consider applying for the M.F.A.

I’d always intended to be a writer, but I was a poor kid from rent-controlled housing in Brooklyn, and the path laid out in that advice would have caused me too many financial burdens. I believed pursuing a Ph.D. in literature and thus committing to six years of formal, dedicated study would in no ways harm my talent as a writer. Furthermore, I believed that it would make me a better writer by putting me in conversation with literary history and scholarship.

Obtaining a Ph.D. in literature allowed me to not just be a voice in the literary conversation, but to understand all of the voices speaking in that conversation. It has given my work depth and subtlety, which is not always comprehended upon the first read, but which becomes more apparent with further study. For example, my first collection At-Risk makes references to Emmett Till, minstrelsy, the performance of blackness, the law of hypodescent, and Milton’s Paradise Lost and my newest collection The Loss of All Lost Things references the Trojan War, the destruction of Pompeii, marital rape, suicide, degenerative diseases, and Trayvon Martin, but the treatment is subtle and nuanced so that most of these references would only be picked up on by the most astute reader.

CM: Your emphasis on short story writing is something I appreciate seeing in a market that’s usually driven by novels. What is it about writing short stories that speaks to you most?

AG: When I was a child, there was a commercial for Tootsie Rolls that aired on television and its jingle went like this, “Whatever it is I think I see becomes a Tootsie Roll to me!” The commercial featured kids playing and everything they saw turned into a Tootsie Roll. That’s how I feel about short stories. The world I see looks like a short story to me. Everywhere I look, I see short stories. Short stories mirror my reality. Many novels tend to be definitive; at their conclusions they often suggest that the action has been completed and that there is no more to be said. That’s not what the world looks like to me. To me, nothing ever seems to be completely finished or all the way closed.

People come to certain conclusions or live by certain beliefs, and then some new piece of information is presented, or some new experience is had that causes them to draw different conclusions. People are always changing, growing, shifting, and never sitting still. Human resolutions are temporary, often offering knowing that is fleeting or tied to a specific moment in time or set of events—just like the resolutions in short stories. When you write a short story, you allow the reader to drop in on characters and get to know them at that moment, but there is always an understanding that you could pop back in on them at a later date and they might be very different people.

CM: What, if anything, do you find to be the most important aspect of making a good short story land?

AG: Heart. I have read many short stories that were technically “good” i.e. they were mechanically clean and they featured all the necessary parts by which we come to recognize a short story—inciting incident, conflict, rising action, denouement, etc. but they fell flat because it seemed that the writers did not actually care about the characters. The characters don’t seem real; they read like types. It is as if they exist on the page only to prove a certain point and once they have done so, the story is over. Somewhere in the process of writing, you have to arrive at the point where you genuinely care about the characters. I do not mean that you have to “like” them or make them “likable.” What I am talking about is an investment of caring. Because you are a human being and your characters are based on human beings, there is a natural affinity between yourself and the characters about which you write; therefore, you should care about them. If you are going to kill off one of your characters, they should not die merely as plot fodder. You should feel their death and it should hurt you. You should grieve and mourn them.

I am not a writer who composes bubbly stories full of rainbows and happy endings; most of my stories are dark or sad and many of my characters are in pain. I feel their pain. In my first book At-Risk, two young boys are killed in an accidental homicide (death by stray bullets); in Now We Will Be Happy, a woman is a victim of domestic abuse, and in The Loss of All Lost Things, a young boy is abducted by a sexual predator. None of these stories were easy for me to write. I did not dash them off without a care. I almost didn’t write them, believing that there was already enough violence and sadness out there in the real world. But I did write them.

Each of those three stories took me years to complete because I cared so deeply about my characters. When writing, there were moments when I felt sick to my stomach and had to stop mid-page because I was crying too much, times when the research was too sickening and graphic and I couldn’t bear to read or watch anymore—I’d have to step away from the stories for months at a time to give my spirit a break. It’s true, they are only characters—they’re not real people, but they deserve to be written with care. You should care about who they are and what they will or will not do and how these actions might affect them for better or worse. Otherwise, why are you writing about them in the first place?

CM: After teaching at institutions like DePaul University and University of Miami, have you found that being an educator has helped your own writing in any way?

AG: Absolutely. Teaching helps keep me engaged and tuned in. I’ve been writing seriously for quite some time now—about seventeen years. As a result, much of my formal training has been forgotten or become second nature to me. When I first started writing, I used to think of stories in terms of their parts and components and I used to revise with attention to certain craft aspects and details i.e. I’d look at the dialogue, and then the setting, etc. But now, writing is second nature to me. I’ve arrived at that stage where I know what I know without knowing how I know it. Since teaching creative writing makes it necessary for me to deconstruct stories, to explain and discuss them one craft element at a time, it helps me to articulate that which I otherwise wouldn’t.

My students also inspire me. I talk to them about what they are reading, why they like certain stories, and in doing so I am sometimes introduced to literature of which I was previously unaware. One student expressed an interest in Japanese literature and culture, which inspired me to supplement the syllabus with short stories by Hisaye Yamamoto and Yukio Mishima. One student introduced me to Lucia Berlin’s story “Friendship” last year, which I greatly enjoyed. As a result of that, I bought Berlin’s collected works and have been working my way through it. I am definitely the richer for these stories making their way into my life.

CM: How do you balance teaching and still managing to write? What does your process look like?

AG: I am learning that this is an ever-evolving process. Teaching creative writing is both an inspiring and time-consuming process. What’s inspiring about it is that you get to discuss writing and literature in an animated and impassioned way with people who care as deeply as you do about the subject matter. A creative writing workshop is a room full of people who “get it”—who get that writing is important, affirming, and sustaining, who understand that writing takes time, effort, revision, and care. For those who often have to defend their avocation, it’s exciting and inspiring to have the ability to convey your passion, joy, and insight to people who actually want to receive it. So, the teaching of creative writing—the discussions and the re-reading of published stories, and novellas I admire—gets me gung-ho to come home and write until my fingers throb and the letters on my keyboard fade to smudges.

However, there’s also the time-consuming part i.e. the amount of time and care that goes into preparing each individual critique for workshop. Once the workshop portion of the course begins, it is a dizzying whirl of reading, responding, and critiquing, which often leaves little to no time to work on one’s own writing. This varies from writer to writer. Many writers work best by carving out an hour or two per day to devote to their own writing, but that doesn’t actually work for me. I prefer large blocks of uninterrupted time for writing and I consider the first two hours of my writing day to be more like sloughing or exfoliating—a chance to write poorly, adverbially even, to rid myself of whatever bad habits or clichés reside in me—to get rid of obvious sentences or details so that I can get to the good stuff underneath, to write my way into a sweet spot where I can remain ensconced for a few hours or days until my brain needs a break and I return to the mundane world while my mind replenishes its creativity.

This has become harder and harder to do because of both my teaching and book touring schedule, so for the past two years what I have done is build my stories during the semesters i.e. write snippets of them in notebooks, etc. and let them simmer, and then I gift myself with writing residencies during the summer breaks, where I can write and revise without interruption and bring my ideas to fruition. During the semester, I give my students their time and during the breaks I give my writing its time. Finding balance is an ongoing enterprise, but what I’ve described is the current method that presently works for me.

CM: Are you involved in any writing communities, and if so, have you found collaborating with other writers to be beneficial?

AG: I have participated in many writing conferences and residencies, such as Breadloaf, Callaloo, Hurston/Wright, MacDowell, Ragdale, and Ucross and I still consider myself to be a part of those communities. Additionally, I am a member of Kimbilio, and a Staff Member for the Sewanee Writers Conference, both of which are very important to me and in which I am deeply invested.

For writers who don’t have the luxury to go away for weeks or months to attend the conferences and residencies above, there is also that literary mecca—AWP. Some writers find AWP to be overwhelming because the conference has grown to such large proportions, but attending AWP is one of the highlights of my year. I look forward to going with the same type of fervor someone else might save for a rock concert. It’s a gathering of the tribe—a four-day respite from a world in which your words have to be translated, a chance to be in a place where everyone speaks your language. AWP is loud and raucous. It’s big; it’s unwieldy, yet it soothes me.

The idea that there is a conference for writers that draws 15,000-20,000 people does not intimidate or overwhelm me; it makes me proud and super happy that there are that many of us out there and that we have a place where we can come together and find each other, and that in that place and during that time, our interactions with one another can give us the strength to sustain ourselves as writers for the rest of the year and until we meet again.

While I don’t collaborate in the sense of engaging in a joint publishing venture with other writers, I do commune with other writers and that is of great benefit to me. I find it to be not only beneficial, but necessary to my sanity.

CM: All of the characters in The Loss of All Lost Things are animated with such relatable, real motives. In writing these people, were there any that you found yourself sympathizing with more than others?

AG: If I am going to write about a character, I have to be able to sympathize with him or her. I have to be able to sympathize with and understand all of the characters in any given story I am writing. I do not have to like any of them or condone their actions, but I do have to know from where they are coming. Although the reader may do so, I cannot sympathize with one character more than another because if I am doing so, that is a signal that my work is not yet done and the story is not yet complete, and I will have to continue revising toward a better understanding of all of the characters.

CM: What would be the best piece of advice that you could have received when you finished your undergraduate degree and entered the writing world?

AG: From Peter Rock and Samantha Chang, respectively, I received two of the best pieces of advice when I finished my undergraduate degree and was preparing to enter the writing world. First, I was told to write ten publishable stories before I submitted the first one for publication. Second, I was told to collect rejections i.e. to make a game out of getting them. Those two pieces of advice have been worth their weight in gold.

They prevented me from falling into the “write one, send one” trap into which I’ve seen so many writers fall. These writers get so engrossed in following the progress of the story they’ve completed that it gets in the way of them producing more work or different work. They wait for an acceptance or a rejection on that story before they complete another. Receiving a rejection letter sends them into a funk and they don’t write anything else for a long time, or if they do have something else completed, they become so scared of rejection that they won’t send it out. Or, conversely, their story gets accepted and they use that as a form of positive reinforcement to keep writing slightly different versions of the same story in the hopes that they will garner more acceptances, thus limiting their growth as a writer and restricting the breadth and depth of their talent. The advice I received taught me to sidestep that trap. I don’t care about rejections. I mean, I am human and rejections do bother me, but they don’t set me back or change my course. I get annoyed for about fifteen to thirty minutes when one comes my way, and then I get back to work.

Amina Gautier is the author of three award-winning short story collections: At-RiskNow We Will Be Happy and The Loss of All Lost ThingsAt-Risk was awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award, The First Horizon Award, and the Eric Hoffer Legacy Fiction Award. Now We Will Be Happy was awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, the International Latino Book Award, the Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Book Award, a National Silver Medal IPPY Award, and was a Finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. The Loss of All Lost Things was awarded the Elixir Press Award in Fiction, the Royal Palm Literary Award, and the Chicago Public Library’s 21st Century Award. More than ninety of her stories have been published, appearing in AgniCallalooGlimmer TrainIowa ReviewPrairie SchoonerSouthern Review, and Quarterly West. Gautier has won the Crazyhorse Prize, Danahy Fiction Prize, the Jack Dyer Prize, the William Richey Prize, the Schlafly Microfiction Award, and the Lamar York Prize in Fiction and received fellowships and scholarships from Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, Dora Maar, Disquiet International, Hawthornden, MacDowell Colony, the Ragdale Foundation, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, Ucross Foundation, and Vermont Studio Center. She is a graduate of Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Claire Martin is studying Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago.  You can find her working on creative essays, wandering through Printer’s Row after hours, and becoming fully nocturnal.

April 03, 2017

Tags: Amina GautierClaire MartinInterviews EditorAuthor InterviewsShort StoriesShort Story WritingSympathetic CharactersEmpathyWriting Fully Realized CharactersFellowshipsResidencesTeaching Creative WritingTeaching and WritingWriting ProcessFinding BalanceBenefits of PhDAdvice for Writers


Tiffany Gholar

Author of A Bitter Pill to Swallow


Interviewed by Will Haryanto

Tiffany Gholar and I met during the last day of the Chicago Writers Conference 2016. We rode on the same bus and talked about writing, specifically self-publishing. She knew what she was talking about when she published her own art books on Amazon. It was all about getting it out there and making sure people saw it as much as possible. Tiffany talked about the costs it took to publish the books and much more.

The discussion fascinated me and we got in contact again months later. By that point, she had finally published A Bitter Pill to Swallow and attended radio shows to promote the book. When I interviewed her for the book, she told me that the book had won the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award for Fiction, Non-Traditionally Published.

We like to think that once a manuscript is written, everything is done and we can leave it to the gods and stars to finish the work. But that’s not always the case and certainly not in the realm of self-publishing. It takes great effort to have even one person read a self-published book. I hope this interview will shed some light on the lesser known feats of self-published writers.

 Will Haryanto: What made you write A Bitter Pill to Swallow?

 Tiffany Gholar: I was actually just fourteen years old when I wrote the short story (on pink notebook paper with purple ink) that would become A Bitter Pill to Swallow. Without giving too much away, I will say that I began with one of my plot twists in mind as I devised “what if” scenarios in my creative writing class. I was about to start high school and had spent seventh and eighth grade getting dropped off by my school bus at a library that had a large collection of books about African-American teens, but I didn’t see myself in most of them. The primary struggles the characters faced in those books involved issues of racial identity or civil rights, which felt somewhat limiting to me. Of course these are important issues, but what about adventure, suspense, romance, mystery, suspense, or science fiction? I saw A Bitter Pill to Swallow as the book I wanted to read that no one else had written yet. Over time, it grew into a novel.

WH: Are any of the characters and events based on real life? 

TG: The situation that happened to Devante and Monica was based on something that actually happened here in Chicago in the early ’90s. I read about it in the newspaper when I was a young teen and it stayed with me.

When I was in college, I was surrounded by Black women who were pre-med, and their experiences helped to inform Gail’s character.

 WH: How much research did you do before you wrote the book? Or were you researching while writing the book?

TG: From the time I was in high school, I took psychology classes and read books and articles in my free time. Before I began working on the latest version of the story, I committed myself to watching as many films as I could about people who were being treated for mental illnesses in institutional settings and reading over thirty books. I took a lot of notes. I also gleaned what I could from friends who opened up to me about what they had experienced during inpatient treatment. The biggest turning point in my research was when I visited the Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, a therapeutic boarding school that was the inspiration for the Harrison School in the book. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, and was the opposite of the desolate and decrepit institutions I encountered in books and films. I also talked to a good friend of mine who is a doctor now to get insight into what Gail’s experiences in medical school might have been like, as well as to my own therapist about what he enjoys about his work.

WH: What was the hardest part about writing the story?

TG: The process of writing A Bitter Pill to Swallow was a difficult one to begin with. I had to constantly fight against my own self-doubt. I sometimes made the mistake of showing the wrong draft to the wrong person at the wrong time, and getting feedback that made me want to give up. I worked on it throughout high school and college, where I adapted it into a screenplay for my thesis project.

 The hardest part about writing it was deciding what kind of story I wanted to tell. Initially, I had envisioned it as a suspense thriller, but as I got older I felt as though some of my plot elements were trite and unrealistic. Then, after I visited the Orthogenic School my senior year of college, I realized that was the kind of setting I wanted, an environment that was positive and healing. I had to sit with that epiphany for nearly a decade before I found a premise that would work. But once I figured it out, the process of writing became much easier. I could envision the setting and my characters more clearly than ever before. Within two years I had written an outline, the screenplay, and the novel. 

WH:  How did you edit the story?

 TG: I sent my third draft to several beta readers, made some additional revisions over several months, then hired a professional to do line editing.

WH:  Why did you self-publish this book? (What was the reason why you forwent traditional publishing outlets?)

TG: I had an extremely difficult time getting an agent, and none of the small presses I contacted ever got back to me. Rather than wait indefinitely on other people, I decided to move forward with publishing my book independently. This was not my first time publishing my own book. Before A Bitter Pill to Swallow, I published three books about my artwork, so I was familiar with the process.

WH:  What is the process of self-publishing like to you? 

TG: At times it’s stressful, but the greatest reward is the creative control. In this case, I had the opportunity to use my artistic skills to create my own cover art. I spent a few months working on cover designs and ultimately decided to make four different covers, three of which single out my main characters. There are two ways I look at independent publishing: “I get to do everything!” Also, “I have to do everything!” Although, I didn’t really have to do everything. I delegated the tasks I could not do myself to others who could. The print-on-demand technology we have continues to improve and makes it so much easier for authors to share their work with audiences all over the world, which makes the process much easier.

WH: On the Amazon page, you have put the School Library Journal‘s review of the book. While it is positive, the reviewer is also critical about the writing. It seems you have left this review intact on the product information. What made you decide to put that in?

TG: I actually didn’t put that review there. Amazon did, unfortunately. I am trying to figure out what to do about it. On the one hand, I think that many potential readers would consider a School Library Journal review more prestigious than a review from a blogger. On the other hand, it’s a mixed review. I’m torn. It frustrates me, because I feel as though the reviewer sees things that I did intentionally as a mistake that I made because this is my first novel.

WH: Are there any future projects that you are working on? Any interest in working with a publisher?

TG: I have recently started doing illustration work for two independent authors who are publishing children’s books. One should be coming out very soon. I have really enjoyed illustrating and would love to work with a publisher. I am also planning to independently publish my next art book in 2018.

 WH: And lastly, what is some advice you’d like to give to aspiring writers?

TG: I have several pieces of advice to share:

  • If you are publishing independently, make sure that you hire the right editor. The wrong editor can completely sabotage your creative process. Try to get as many sample edits as you can and don’t work with an editor unless you feel truly comfortable with that person. It’s a very important relationship.

  • If you have an idea for a story that you could see as both a movie and a book, write the screenplay first. Then when you write it as a novel, you get to add extra scenes. It is so much less stressful than trying to cut scenes out to do an adaptation.

  • Give yourself time between completing a draft and editing it. Two weeks to a month, if possible, will allow you to look at it with a new perspective.

February 20, 2017


Michael Czyzniejewski

Writing about the art of breaking up


Interviewed by Karina Corona

There is nothing is more human than the experience and emotions that follow a break up. In our age of disconnect, the act of breaking up is no longer a simple good bye and good day. Whether you’re the one dumping or getting dumped, when it comes to relationships—be it one of a few years, months, or even weeks—one things is certain: things are bound to get weird. 

Michael Czyzniejewski is a master in the art of breaking up, or at least when it comes to writing about it. His book, I Will Love You For the Rest of My Life, is a collection of short stories regarding the dark and sometimes strange occurrences before, during, and after a break up. 

Hair Trigger had to opportunity to talk with Czyzniejewski about his book and more importantly, the proper pronunciation of his last name. 

Karina Corona: In the dedication, you dedicate this book to Karen who “didn’t inspire a single word of this book.” Who is Karen?

Michael Czyzniejewski: Karen is my non-breakup, the one who didn’t get away, the one who I truly love for the rest of my life. My first two books were dedicated to my parents, one each, and it was basically going to be her for book three. Sadly, the third book was all about sadness and the end of relationships, so I almost dedicated it to all my ex-girlfriends and was going to put their Facebook page urls so people who read my book could either congratulate them on moving on from me or tell them how foolish they were, depending on how they liked my book. But then I thought of a way to shoehorn Karen in, make it sweet, make her melt. Next two books will be my two kids, then my cat, then probably something abstract like punk rock or ennui. And if I write more books than that, I’ll either have to get married again (bigamy, because again, Karen = rest of life), have more kids, or something I haven’t thought of. Is Jodie Foster a cliché?

KC: Who or what did inspire you to write break-up stories?

MC: Stories always need conflict, and for some reason, the conflict I was always going to was the trouble that relationships were having. I guess that the “for some reason” is what you’re really asking for, but that’s the best I got: I wrote plots and conflicts around people’s lives falling apart in that way. I realize that a lot of stories have another conflict, another plot, AND a relationship in the background, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I’m working on a novel, without any love yet, and now maybe I just thought of my next forty pages.

KC: Some of these stories sound extremely intimate, as though they were taken directly from someone’s private journal. Are any of these stories inspired from reality?

MC: One story in particular is inspired by an ex, but only marginally. It’s the Ding Dong story. While Ding Dongs, or snack cakes in general, weren’t involved, the dynamic of the relationship—how I felt during it, how I see myself as being treated—was straight from., pain). But otherwise, I just made a lot of them up, imagined how and why people hurt each other. It was hard at first, but then easy, because hurting itself is pretty easy, can be accomplished in so many ways.

KC: I understand you’re from Chicago and while reading your book, the overall feeling was very much the feeling of Chicago—shifting in mood and tone much like the shifting weather here—but the location where these stories take place is never a thing which is mentioned. Was this something intentional or is it just second nature?

MC: Both. I’ve never really thought of setting in the way that someone like Rick Bass or E. Annie Prouix does. Or most writers. It’s for the same reasons I tend to not describe my characters—except in the grotesque sense—or give them ages or races: I want my stories to be more universal, as if they could happen anywhere, to anyone. I think I’ve succeeded in that, too. Donald Barthelme is a huge influence on me and when I think about it, none of those stories have a particular place, or descriptions of the weather or geography. Would I like to be better at that? Sure. But I don’t feel bad that I’ve left it off—you telling me that you feel like they feel Chicago makes me glad. Had you said, “Prague” or “Provo” I would have wondered what was causing that. I’ve never been to either. (Now I want to write a story set in Provo.)

KC: It’s always fun to come across writing that feels new and fresh. How did you come up with “The Braxton-Carter-Vandamme-Myers-Braxton-Carter Divorce: An Outline”?

MC: I really wanted this book to take chances, to do things I’ve never done, or maybe that no one’s ever done, and the best way to do that is experiment with form; it wasn’t like I was going to make up some new kind of suffering or heartbreak for people to endure, as you either lose someone or you don’t, through your fault or theirs (or death, I guess). So I thought about stories I’ve read, different forms, and I remember index stories and columned stories and all kinds of epistolaries, even what Dave Eggers does with the legal pages and other front and back material in his memoir, Heartbreaking Working of Staggering Genius. But I hadn’t seen anyone write a story as an outline and turn it in as the finished product (I made sure when I sent the manuscript to my editor that he knew it wasn’t an in-progress piece, but what I wanted it to look like), even though, ironically, a lot of writers have that version, because they start with an outline, or get to one at some point. I wish I’d done more of that, more forms, as so many people ask me about that story.

KC: Finally, how do you pronounce your last name?

MC: Easy: Exactly how it’s spelled.

To purchase “I Will Love You For the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories” visit Curbside Splendor

December 19, 2016

Tags: Karina CoronaMichael CzyzniejewskiI Will Love You For the Rest of My LifeShort StoriesInterview


Scott Kenemore

Scott reveals Brains behind horror writing


Interview by Ben Kowalski

Scott Kenemore shambled into the world of horror writing with his 2007 satire The Zen of Zombie: Better Living through the Undead. Now the author of four horror novels, five zombie-themed satires, and 2011’s Zombies vs. Nazis—which is listed as an “unclassifiable found-document” on his website—Kenemore has made a name for himself in both zombie-themed and general horror writing.

Hair Trigger had the opportunity to speak with Scott Kenemore about his literary inspirations, his view of zombies, and his creative process.

Ben Kowalski: How did you first enter the world of horror and zombie writing?

Scott Kenemore: I’ve always liked horror. I think the formative moment in my life was being about 10 years-old, riding my bicycle to the public library and checking out a book by H.P. Lovecraft—who is my favorite writer now. I had sort of heard about [him] in connection to things like roleplaying games and was oddly curious because I never liked scary stories. They had one of his books. I took it down at the library and I read the first two stories, which were “In the Vault” and “Pickman’s Model.” I remember putting the book down and thinking, “This might be the best thing that anyone ever did, ever. I know I’m a dumb 10-year-old—I don’t know much about the world—but I feel pretty confident this is the best thing anyone ever did ever.” I’ve largely continued to feel that way as an adult.

BK: How has your view of zombies changed since you began writing about them?

SK: Being someone who does something creative with zombies has given me a better sense of how elastic they can be. I have noticed that some of the works of art involving zombies that are my favorites and mean the most to me were made by people who were taking a chance and, if not breaking the rules, bending rules.

I really like, for example, [The] Return of the Living Dead, my favorite zombie film. That’s the first film [where] zombies say “Braaaiiiins.” It’s just delightful but so much of it is risk-taking. Dan O’Bannon, the writer/director [came] up with a coherent story for where zombies came from, [tied] in Night of the Living Dead to the mythology of [The] Return of the Living Dead, [came] up with zombies wanting to eat brains, why zombies want to eat brains, [and] new rules to what can and can’t kill a zombie—really interesting stuff. 

I would say my favorite zombie short story is “What Maisie Knew” by Davis Liss. In his world, zombies can remember a little bit about their former selves when they are either in extreme pain or having sexual intercourse. The way he uses that in fiction to create a world where zombies hungering after a little slice of their own former consciousness—or consciousnesses—is awesome. I came to identify a little bit with the people who may don’t totally reinvent zombies, but bend rules in the service of being creative.

BK: You’ve written both zombie satire and zombie horror. How do those writing processes differ for you?

SK: Those tend to come from me personally feeling hatred and contempt for other people and thinking [things] suck. At least, that I could be doing a better job of them or that they deserve to be made fun of. If I think they deserve to be made fun of, then I will go with satire. If I think, “God, this guy f—-n’ sucks, this gal f—-n’ sucks,” then it becomes the motivation to do my own creative work and try to do a better job than what I’ve just read.

BK: Your most recent novel, The Grand Hotel, is a collection of interconnected short stories and a departure from zombies. Can you tell me more about that?

SK: I don’t only write about zombies. There is what you write and there is what gets published, and yet, readers only see what gets published. I also write horror fiction and straight-up scary stories, but that sometimes is a little bit trickier. I feel like I’m mostly a zombie guy. 

I’ve always loved collections of short stories and loved when they were interconnected—it was this little world. I was getting dinner along Demott Avenue in Chicago, and something I do when either I’m early or other people are late, is browse the curiosity shops and book shops along Demott Avenue. There are a lot of English language books for sale in these stores that are imported from India for English-speaking Indian audiences. One of the books I came across was something totally new to me: The Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie by Sivadasaa story cycle from ancient India that was written down several hundred years ago but probably existed orally before that. I love the idea that this was something that had been updated and changed. [It] showed that interconnected story cycles were elastic and created people that played with and found certain uses for it again and again. It was really interesting and I wanted to do something with [it] in a cultural appropriation sort of way. I looked at what I thought was interesting about it and it was sort of the inspiration for The Grand Hotel. If anyone reads The Grand Hotel [and] the only thing they take from it is [that] they get curious about The Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie, then I did something good.

BK: What would you say is your favorite aspect of the horror genre and the process of writing it?

SK: An important function—maybe the most important function—of good horror is that it makes you question what you know. As Freud identifies in his essay “The Uncanny,” [he] says that the root of all uncanny horror is that we are realizing that something we thought we knew for sure, we don’t know for sure, or [somewhere] that we thought was a safe place is not a safe place. 

Not all horror does that—some horror is just about creating likable characters and putting them into danger—but the best horror, the horror that keeps me writing, makes us ask: “Do we really know things for sure? Do we really know—in the case of a zombie outbreak, say—how we would act during a crisis? Do we really know how other people would act during a crisis?” I can make people question things like, “What would community mean during a crisis?” or, “What would working together mean during a crisis?” For me, those are really interesting questions that keep me interested in horror.

BK: Is there anything you’d like to add?

SK: If younger people are reading this interview that are doing something creative, if you are interested in writing about horror [or] zombies: Come on in, the water’s warm. There’s a lot of interesting stuff still to be written. With respect to all the people who are working in the genre now, I think a lot of us feel like the great zombie novel still has yet to be written. Maybe you could be the person to do that. If you’re interested in zombies, if you’re interested in that kind of horror, absolutely go for it and do something creative. 

Visit Scott Kenemore’s site here.

Ben Kowalski is a BA Nonfiction senior at Columbia College Chicago, creative nonfiction writer, copy editor and contributor at the award-winning Columbia Chronicle (2015), and music critic at Pop’ (2014–2015). Ben is currently working on an essay collection about music, and his album reviews can be found at

December 12, 2016

Tags: InterviewScott KenemoreBen KowalskiFictionThe Zen of ZombieZombies vs. Nazis