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Nadine Kenney Johnstone in Conversation with Punctuate

May 24, 2018

The Chicago Writers’ Association Book of the Year for 2018 was awarded to Nadine Kenney Johnstone for her book Of This Much I’m Sure. In this memoir, Kenney Johnstone reflects on her Chicago upbringing, the first years of her marriage, and the challenges she faced while undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Her other work has been featured in The Moth, PANK, The Magic of Memoir, among others.

Kenney Johnstone earned her MFA from Columbia College Chicago and currently teaches at Loyola University. She also serves as a writing coach and can be emailed at for more information.

The interview was conducted with Sadaf Ferdowsi for the one-year anniversary of the memoir’s publication. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Punctuate: When was the moment you decided your first book would be a memoir recounting your experiences undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF)?

Nadine Kenney Johnstone: Back in 2012, I went to a writing retreat in Guatemala, and the instructor encouraged me to write about my nine frozen embryos. This inspired my essay “Nine Babies on Ice,” which got published in the parenting issue of PANK that year. Writing it felt so scary and freeing that I knew I had a lot more to say on the topic.

Punctuate: While it is very much about the journey of pregnancy and birth, Of This Much I’m Sure is also driven by the relationships between you and your mother, you and your sister, and you and your husband. What challenges existed to incorporate these (sometimes-complicated) relationships into your narrative and how did you overcome them?

Kenney Johnstone: When I started writing about our journey to conceive, I realized that it affected all of my important relationships. I also realized that when I moved to Massachusetts to be with Jamie, I neglected the people who were most important to me back in Chicago. I had to write about it all because it was so intertwined. And in order to do that, I had to write like no one would ever read the manuscript, otherwise, I’d have censored myself based on what I thought everyone’s responses would be.

Secondly, I thought of this as the opportunity to really expose all of the roles I had played in the demolition and rebuilding of the most important relationships in my life. Any time I wrote about a tension I had with someone, I asked myself how I had contributed to it, and that helped me write what I hope is a fair depiction of those experiences. My mom, sister, and husband all read the final manuscript before it was published and we had some really deep, connecting conversations about the struggles we had been through. Continue Reading


20 Questions for Peter K. Steinberg

May 24, 2018

Asked by David Trinidad

What is your first memory?

Out my childhood bedroom window, winter 1998.

I have some co-first memories. I don’t know how real they are. But first is being dropped; falling. My mother was carrying me from the living room into our “play room.” There is a step down. A toy left out and she stepped on it and dropped me. She caught me, but the first memory is of falling. I was told, too, that once I fell down the basement stairs. I guess I know what’s wrong with me! Another early one is being at Virginia Beach and getting absolutely wiped out by a wave. I was wearing a white T-shirt with the outline of George Washington’s face in electrically bright colors of orange and green.

You’ve written a biography of Sylvia Plath, co-written a book (with Gail Crowther) about working in the Plath archives, and co-edited (with Karen V. Kukil) two volumes of Plath’s letters. What drew you to Sylvia Plath?

Entering my junior year of college last century, I was dumped by my first love. I decided to take an introduction to poetry course as I had been writing poems and lyrics. All bad. In the course we started with Anonymous and ended after the Confessionals. It was in reading “Lady Lazarus” that I felt, for the first time in weeks, that I’d get over losing the girl. When I asked my professor for more information about Plath, he tried to dissuade me from it, which I felt was an odd thing. Luckily, a friend knew about Plath and helped me find her books in the library. Another professor was very supportive and helpful, but she said Plath would be a phase. Twenty-four years later . . . Continue Reading


Online Survey for the Editor of an Anthology of Borrowed Form Essays

April 25, 2018

This survey was sent by Jenna McGuiggan to Kim Adrian, editor of The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Except for the book’s foreword, by Brenda Miller, and the source acknowledgements, everything in this anthology has been written using borrowed forms, including Adrian’s introduction, all of the essays, and the postscript by Cheyenne Nimes. There’s even an essay hiding in the list of contributors.


Your answers to the following questions will help us to understand how this anthology of work by 30 writers came together. Your feedback on these topics is invaluable. Thank you for taking the time to complete this survey.

1) Which of these factors was most important to you when deciding to create an anthology of borrowed form essays?

A. The fame and fortune that only essay anthologies can offer
B. A postmodern distrust of traditional literary forms
C. A lifelong passion for crustaceans
D. Other (please specify)

Finding the right form for a given piece of writing is a huge but normally hidden part of the writing process. One reason I like to read and write essays that borrow their forms from elsewhere is that they put that aspect of the writing process front and center. To me, this anthology is ultimately less about this very narrow sub-genre, the so-called “hermit crab essay,” and more about looking very closely at the relationship of form to content.

2) In her foreword to The Shell Game, Brenda Miller explains how she came up with the term “hermit crab essay” in 2001 to describe lyric essays that take on the form (or “shell”) of another kind of writing. If the term hermit crab essay should fall out of favor, what other trickster of the animal kingdom has the necessary qualities to fill this role? Please consider the potential threats and predators that such a specimen would have to overcome.

A. Honey badger (“don’t care!”)
B. Ostrich (head in sand)
C. Possum (playing dead)
D.Chameleon (changing colors)
E. Octopus (master of camouflage)
F. Other (please specify)

I think the honey badger makes a great mascot for all serious writing. It’s tenacious, a little insane, it gets the job done, even if it almost dies trying. But most of all, it “don’t care.” That’s so key to writing well—outrunning your own demons. Finding a way out of their grip. Getting back up if you get knocked down, again and again. Continue Reading


Dan Chaon in Conversation with Timothy Parfitt

March 22, 2018

Dan Chaon is the author of three short story collections, including Among the Missing, which was nominated for a National Book Award, and three novels. He lives in Cleveland and teaches at Oberlin College. His latest novel Ill Will, a New York Times bestseller, was just published in paperback.

When in town for the Columbia College Chicago Reading Series, he sat down with former student, and current nonfiction MFA candidate, Timothy Parfitt. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

 Punctuate: Ill Will builds off of factual events like the Satanism hysteria in the 80s and the conspiracy theories around the Smiley FaceKiller. When you’re building out your imaginative worlds, how do decide when to let your imagination run free and when to stick to fact?

Dan Chaon: I think of everything as fiction. There are images that come from real life, but I don’t think I used any of the details of the factual cases. They become more of a conglomerate or collage of real stuff and made up stuff. So I didn’t feel tied to either of those events. There were several “Satanic Panic” cases that I used as touchstones, like the famous West Memphis Three one. And with the Smiley Face stuff, that’s so nebulous. I think there was one image I used that is pretty close to the real image which was the kid in the Native American outfit. But generally, I reset it in Ohio, there haven’t been any Smiley Face killings in Ohio, and I just used the template of the “killing method” as my jumping-off point. Continue Reading


An Interview with Camille T. Dungy

December 20, 2017

Photo courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

Camille T. Dungy is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade. She has also edited a number of anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. She is a professor at Colorado State University. Her latest is the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History.

When Camille T. Dungy visited Columbia College Chicago for a reading this fall, she sat down with Punctuate assistant editors Ishah Houston and Taylor Mel. The interview was edited by Mariel Tishma.

Punctuate: Given the fact that history is a constant force within your work, do you feel yourself trying to understand those who are gone, but whose echo seems to heavily influence your work?

Camille T. Dungy: I think writing offers me a kind of experience and time travel, where I get to be in lots of different moments simultaneously. I don’t know that we have yet invented a mechanical object to allow us to do that, but writing does it. So I can be right here, but I can’t walk around Michigan Avenue in Chicago without remembering myself as seven years old. I was here every summer. I’m right here, but I’m also back there at the same time. The moment I do that, I think back to my grandparents’ past and their history and what brought them to Chicago. What they left to come to Chicago. I’m in that. I am in all those places and with you. Here and now but also in some other times, and those people who’ve lived in other times are always with me. You might think of them as ghosts, but I’d like to think of them as guides. Continue Reading


Paula Carter in Conversation with Sadaf Ferdowsi

November 28, 2017

Paula Carter is the author of No Relation, a collection of flash essays that details her experiences helping to care for, and then leaving, two boys from her partner’s previous marriage. Incorporating prose poems, fairy tales, metaphors, and vignettes, Carter creates a mosaic of love and loss, longing and belonging, as she searches for the true meaning of family.

While No Relation is Carter’s first book, she also has essays published in The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. She is also a company member with 2nd Story, one of Chicago’s most prominent live lit events.

The interview with Carter was conducted over cups of coffee in her charming apartment in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood on an August afternoon.

SF: Nonfiction is a genre that is not so easily defined—especially when we consider the multiple subgenres that challenge its boundaries. Because No Relation is characterized as a collection of flash essays, I was wondering how you would define a “flash essay” in your own words?

PC: I think for me a flash essay is something that walks the line between prose and poetry in a way where the writer takes one significant moment—no matter how small it may be—and uses it to make larger connections to more universal themes. In this way, a certain theme is explored within a very short space and the subject matter becomes more immediate and crystallized for the reader.

SF: I really like that you used the term “crystallize” because it evokes the experience of how I read your emotions. In the book, you don’t overtly describe your emotions; instead, we catch these “glints” of an underlying emotional depth growing beneath the pressure of your prose. How did you write these crystallizing moments despite the extremely personal and emotional nature of the subject matter?

PC: When I began writing the book, I had written some standalone flash essays so I felt that I understood the tools of the form or, rather, the parts of the form. I had also read Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas which is written in these flash nonfiction moments and is also an amazing, beautiful piece of writing. I had all these feelings I wanted to express and when I read her book, I thought “This is the way I can do this,” because it allows me to share moments and construct scenes without a lot of explaining or exposition, which are great things in a regular essay, but, with this form, readers are asked to make certain connections themselves. I feel it leaves more space for reflection and interrogation. Also, without having too much exposition, I was also able to explore the power within my different relationships—with my ex-partner and with his two sons—in a more discrete way.

SF: What motivated you to take this dual experience of falling in and out of love with a romantic partner while also parenting his two children and turning it into a book of essays?

PC: The first impetus was that I had so many thoughts and feelings I wanted to express. I was so deeply affected by building my relationship with the boys and then having to leave them after my partner and I broke up. However, the second impetus was that I noticed there were not many books written from the perspective of a non-biological parent, or from someone who was in my position. When I was grieving the end of my relationship with my partner and his two sons, I was looking for books to help me cope and all I could really find were books in the self-help genre or books on how to create a successful blended family. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find many things written in a more creative genre or from the step-parent’s point of view, which led me to write my own essays about the experience.

Continue Reading


 Punctuate Interviews Shawn Shiflett

November 28, 2017

Shawn Shiflett is a Professor in the English—Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of the novels Hidden Place and, most recently, Hey, Liberal! He was recuperating from a knee injury and slid gingerly into a chair in the Punctuate offices on a fall afternoon to talk about the sixties, his professional influences, and the lines between fiction and nonfiction.

Punctuate: Simon Fleming, the main character of Hey, Liberal!, is a white thirteen-year-old attending a mostly black high school in Chicago shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King. He’s placed there out of idealism by his socially motivated parents. Given the way the events of the novel unfold, are the readers to think Simon’s parents are naïve, delusional, or both?

Shiflett: That’s a question that comes up a lot.  When does naïve enter into delusional? My parents have both apologized to me, though I don’t think they have anything to apologize about. I would not trade my experience of attending Waller High School for anything. You know, maybe it’s the whole country that’s delusional and not my parents. I mean, how are we supposed to rectify things if we aren’t even willing to get out of our segregated boxes? So in terms of parenting, sure, they were naïve, but in terms of American citizens, they were ahead of their time. I don’t have any anger towards them. I think it’s one-sided, and doesn’t see the complexity of how the legacy of genocide got us to where we are today to simply dismiss my parents as delusional. The paradox is that I wouldn’t put my son or daughter through a similar experience as the one I went through at Waller High. That’s the contradictory dichotomy within me now, and I don’t have a problem admitting it.

Punctuate: So you would answer neither?

Shiflett: I would say that my parents were naïve as far as parenting goes, but not naïve politically or in the grand scheme of things.

Punctuate: The novel is set almost fifty years ago, an era you experienced as a young person. What did you learn looking back on those days that you were unprepared for? Continue Reading