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Punctuate Talks to Patricia Ann McNair

September 22, 2017

On an afternoon late last summer, Punctuate sat down with fiction writer Patricia Ann McNair to talk to her about her new collection of essays, And These Are the Good Times (Side Street Press) and to talk about fiction, nonfiction, and their respective realities.

Punctuate: Your title, And These are the Good Times, is a kind of leitmotif that pops up from time to time in the book. How would you like readers to read that clause?

McNair: Well that’s an interesting question. I think I mean, “and these are the good times.” That there’s a lot of good times in a life. But there are also other layers to the meaning of the title. Some of these times, when you read them you might think, “okay so she’s talking about when her brother died . . . That’s not such a good time.” But at the same time, to me, those are part of the good times of my life. Even those moments where things were uncomfortable, things were unhappy. They created some sort of an emotional response that’s good to have; whether or not it feels good. So I want people to be lured in; I want them to feel that all of this will be fun and a good time! But to also know that I mean “good time,” in a much broader way.

Punctuate: The essay “I’m Not Afraid” is a kind of occasional piece written after the presidential election of 2016. Can you describe your impulse, and the experience of writing that piece, and the emotions of the moment?

McNair: Sure. I actually wrote the original version of this before the election, when I was sure we were going to end up with Hilary Clinton as the president. So the last line wasn’t the last line as it stands now. It was something like, “I’m not afraid. And I vote.” But by the time this went into publication, it was clear my vote didn’t matter in the way that I hoped it would. The original emotional response was to write this immediately after all of the “Billy-Bushy” stuff. And we already knew that this presidential candidate was a sexist pig, but then we were once again taken into this dark, dark place of his. You know, total disrespect. All of it. And I started to see a bunch of things coming up online about people being afraid of his coming to office. That they were even afraid to walk down the street if he were to be there. And I think, “How horrible would that be to live your life afraid to walk down the street simply because you’re a woman, or a transgender person, or a person of color?” And even though I have some of these things that I carry with me, I mean, I’m a woman, and I might put myself in situations that are not necessarily safe, I cannot live afraid. I can’t be that person. I can’t live like that. So when I say “I’m not afraid,” I really mean it. Yet there are still things to be afraid of.

Around the time of the “Billy-Bushy” tape, I told my husband one of my stories. I think I told him the story about when I was working in the bars on Division Street and I was being groped. I told him that one and he asked, “Well have you ever had these situations? Another ‘grab you by the pussy’?” And I said, “Oh you mean this time?” And then I started to think about it. “Or did you mean this time? Or do you mean this time? Or do you mean this time when I was nine?” And it really started to kind of rack up. Things I haven’t really thought about over the years. But they make me who I am, right? They hadn’t paralyzed me, but, I think they’re important to acknowledge that they actually happened. And maybe for a time, I wasn’t acknowledging that they happened. But being put in this place in our life now, and the place of the world, I think we have to acknowledge that these things happen. We survive them, and that’s great. But they still happen, and that’s not great.         

Punctuate: So was this a personal affirmation, or was it a message telling your audience not to be afraid? How would you characterize it?

McNair: Yes, and yes! I would say it’s a personal affirmation. You guys have tried to make me afraid, but I am not. I am a warrior. But also we can’t be afraid all the time. You know? You shouldn’t be stupid, but you can’t be afraid all the time. They—these sexist situations—may feel like they happen all the time, but they can’t be the only things that shape us. Let’s acknowledge that it happens. And perhaps acknowledging that it happens will help us move to change. But we can’t let it stop us from being who we are.

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Toni Nealie and Andrew Gregory Krzak

February 15, 2017

A Conversation with Toni Nealie

Toni Nealie is the author of The Miles Between Me, an essay collection about homeland, dispersal, heritage and family, published by Curbside Splendor. Recent essays have appeared in Guernica, The Prague Review, The Offing, and The Rumpus. Her essay “The Displeasure of the Table” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from New Zealand, she holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. She teaches and writes in Chicago, where she is literary editor of New City.

Toni was interviewed on the afternoon of October 10, 2016, in a conference room at Columbia College Chicago. She had just finished teaching back to back Writing and Rhetoric courses and took a few minutes to decompress before we started talking. During this time, Toni told me a story about her ongoing fight with a tree-removal service that had promised to take care of a tree on Toni’s property that had been badly damaged by a storm. The anecdote was amusing but also showed that Toni, though diminutive in stature, is herself a force of nature not to be taken lightly.

Andrew Gregory Krzak: What was the length of the process from when you finished The Miles Between Me and when it was published?

Toni Nealie: I finished writing it in 2014, and then it got accepted in 2015. Editing took place summer of 2015, and it was published in April of 2016. So, you could do the math on that. I was at Printers Row listening to Roger Reeves’s conversation with Tracy Smith, the poet, talking about how it takes forever to write and publish your first book and then the minute it comes out people are asking, “What is your next thing? What’s your next book?” But it does take a long time to publish the first one.

AGK: So, when you have the first one, I mean how is that pressure to do the second one? Do you personally think that you had this cadre of unused stuff or new ideas that you can quickly follow up with or was it enormous pressure like, “Hey! Everybody back off. Let me enjoy this one for a minute?”

TN: Hmm, I have been busy doing stuff with this one. So, it’s been six months since publication, and I have probably done more than twenty readings and quite a lot of interviews. So, I have been kind of fully immersed in the process of this book, the promotion of this book, thinking about book I am kind of done with it. I think I have got two more readings coming up and then I just want to put it to one side. Although, it’s open the door for other opportunities, so now I have been asked to write other things, like for publication. So, I am coming to the time where I want to put some of that stuff aside and carve out time to do new writing. I am quite a slow writer. It takes a while to get to whatever I want to say and how I am saying it. Although, some of the later essays in that book that were done after the initial manuscript, they took a lot less time. So, hopefully the next book will go faster. I’m not working on anything right now. Continue Reading


Sarah Gorham and Sara Cutaia

January 17, 2017

A Conversation

Sara Cutaia: You’ve said lately that you don’t write as much as you used to. But when you did, how did you vacillate between writing poetry and writing essays? Was there ever a time you were doing both, or did you have to set time aside for each? Do you enjoy one more than the other?

Sarah Gorham: While I was writing my fourth book of poetry, Bad Daughter, I began extending my lines all the way to the end of the page. I was also experimenting with prose poems, expanding them as well, sometimes to two full pages. It happened pretty naturally. A group of these ended up as interstices in Study in Perfect.  I spent two weeks in a wonderful farmhouse in rural Kentucky where I wrote the series, Study in Perfect, examining various kinds of perfection that ended up prompting a study of imperfection too. Perfect tea, perfect heaven, perfect conversation, perfect ending, etc. They were fairly idiosyncratic too—I make my tea in a microwave, for example. I started to breathe more in a sentence. During the same period I was commissioned to write an essay about mothers and daughters. I ended up calling it “A Woman Drawn Twice,” and thought it was my first real essay, I thought it decent enough to be included in this collection. Essays are a pleasure for me, and poetry was more torturing. It’s wonderful when you can finish a poem, especially when it comes very quickly, but a lot of it is struggle. In fact, I’m so happy here in the essay, I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back!

SC: Do you have any advice for writers that want to attempt to write in multiple genres?

SG: There were people at Iowa who crossed those sacred borders and wrote in both poetry and fiction. I never understood how they did it. Jayne Anne Phillips was one, and she’s had a very successful career. Generally, I think it’s better for a student to focus on one or the other, at least at first. But the approach to each genre can vary significantly, so when you get stuck, it’s a relief to move from one to the other.  For example, I often used exercises to jumpstart my poetry. One of them was called a “negative inversion,” where you take a fairly simple poem, transcribe it by hand on the left side of a page and on the right you compose the exact opposite of every line. Sometimes it comes out as nonsense, but gradually, you’ll find yourself writing a poem that has nothing to do with the original. Then there are faux translations. The same process, but write out a poem in original Swedish. Read it out loud, then transcribe it on the right side of the page. It’s important that you aren’t familiar with the language, so your version will be based on sound.

In essay, description is a way in. Sometimes I think of essays as jigsaw puzzles. You start with the corner pieces, then you assemble the edges, then you start building the images on the inside. Or you can start with the images on the inside and work your way out. In any case, you’re beginning with something small—a scene, an image, a specific remembered experience. Less overwhelming! With these moveable parts, you can tackle thematic aspects and the transitions between sections. But to begin an essay on the generalized topic of love and death, for example, isn’t something I could ever do.

I’ve heard of another great jumpstarting idea: have a friend come up with twenty random, but interesting words and ask them to incorporate them into a page-length prose piece. It forces you in new directions the same way that traditional forms do for poetry.

SC: What about fiction? Have you ever tried it?

SG: No, but maybe it’s in my future. You know, I have trouble telling a joke! I always get the punch line wrong, or I take too long to get there . . .

SC: Well, in the first essay in your collection, “Moving Horizontal,” the prose where you and your husband find the new home – that felt like storytelling to me. And numerous other passages, too.

SG: That’s interesting. Perhaps it’s the invention factor that intimidates me? Anyway, there are story-like pieces in my new book, Alpine Apprentice. Two chapters towards the end describe an avalanche in Switzerland that my friend managed to survive. He was a teacher, and one of his students was buried underneath him. He had the ability to tell a story. I sat with him on a hillside, at the edge of this tiny Alpine village and recorded his account. It was riveting. All I had to do was pick it up and sew it together. It turned out to be a page-turner, as you might expect, but I had a lot of help!

SC: Many of your essays in Study in Perfect conclude with a rather open-ended encouragement to the reader to seek their own solution. Would you say this was intentional, to pose questions instead of offering answers?

SG: Yes, I prefer an open-ended essay. Far better than locking off the reading experience with  a neat conclusion. For example, in “The Art of Lying,” the very last question I bring up casts doubt back over the essay, adding another layer, and leaving it up to the reader to decide whether I’m lying or not.

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20 Questions for Eula Biss

December 15, 2016

Photo credit: John Bresland

Asked by David Trinidad 

Editor’s note: This is the first in what will be a series of twenty-question interviews conducted by David Trinidad.

What is your first memory?

My memory is very visual, very dependent on sight, and I remember even abstract things, like facts that I’ve read, by their position on the page of the book where I first read them.  (Many hours of my life have been spent paging back through a book to find something that I know I read on the third to last line of the left-hand side of one of the 300 pages of that book.)  I have a jumble of blurry memories from before I was five, including the birth of my sister, the most significant event of my early life, but when I was five I had surgery on my eyes and that’s where my most vivid memories begin.  The first of those is really a memory of seeing clearly, a very bright memory of the experience of sight.  The content of the memory itself isn’t very interesting.  I remember riding on my father’s shoulders, eye-level with a decorative band of triangles, circles, and squares that ran across the top of the hallway of what was probably the children’s wing of the hospital.  That’s it—basic shapes in primary colors that looked, to my new eyes, utterly fascinating.

What was your childhood like?

It was a great, aimless childhood.  I spent a lot of time wandering through the woods and fields where I grew up, examining mosses and smelling the bark of trees.  Those woods and fields felt endless at the time, but they were just slim tracts of wasteland under the flight path of the Albany airport by the Mohawk River in upstate New York.  I was a weird kid and I had a Bartleby attitude toward elementary school—I preferred not to go.  My mother indulged this preference fairly generously.  She diagnosed me as an artist, so I was given lessons in calligraphy and sculpture and drawing and painting, starting in first grade.  There were some years of chaos and bewilderment, too, but I was a lucky kid.

About On Immunity: An Inoculation, you once told me, “I feel like I came up to the edge of my abilities with that book.”  Can you say more about this?

When writing is going well for me, I think that might just be what it feels like!  But, yes, I was handling a lot of information in that book, much more than I’d ever tried to handle before.  And I was learning immunology from the ground up, reading textbooks while trying to refuse technical terminology in my prose.  I was also writing the longest continuous work that I’ve written so far, which really isn’t saying much, as On Immunity isn’t very long or very continuous.  But the length of the essay was challenging.  And the structure of that book demanded that I understand not only what I was saying at any given moment, but also how it related to what I had already said and what I was going to say.  But maybe it wasn’t the edge of my abilities that I arrived at so much as the edge of my comfort.  In writing On Immunity, I discovered that the loose, associative, highly intuitive approach that had served me in the past needed to be, to some extent, abandoned.

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An Interview with Suzanne Scanlon

July 1, 2016

Scanlon_S_194On Indexing and Self-Imagining

Suzanne Scanlon is the author of two novels, Promising Young Women and her most recent, Her 37th Year, An Index. She has won the Iowa Review Fiction Award and appeared in publications such as Hobart, Diagram, Electric Literature, Make, and BOMB. Her nonfiction has appeared in Essay Daily, Bust, The American Scholar, and The Millions, the latter receiving a Critical Hit Award from Electric Literature. She teaches in the English and Creative Writing Departments of Columbia College.

The assistant editors of Punctuate recently sat down with Suzanne to talk about genre bending, blurring, and the interstices within poetry, fiction and nonfiction.

Punctuate: We noted that Her 37th Year, An Index, is labeled as fiction, but certain parts read as nonfiction. Could you talk about that and where you got the idea to write a book in the index format?

Suzanne Scanlon: I wish I could remember the moment I decided to write it as an index.  It was a one-day writing exercise to try to give it some shape, and I just liked it as a short piece. Then, I submitted and published that and it got a prize from the Iowa Review, the short piece. So then I thought, “Oh I have an audience that liked it,” and then I expanded it. I had seen, of course, other writers work in forms like the index. It wasn’t something I was inventing. And putting the timeline into a year, helped the story in a way I liked.

Your second question was in regards to fiction/nonfiction—I think everything I write is like that. I think of it all as fiction, but I read as much nonfiction as fiction. I honestly like playing with genre that way, and I like the interplay. I like exploring ways of telling a true story through the self. That’s how I think of genre. I’m not really attached to genre boundaries. I’m much more interested in the interplay. I read poetry as much as fiction and nonfiction, and I see theater and think about performance as well. Continue Reading


Forging Narrative Spaces: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon

February 17, 2016

Hemon 2

Interviewed by Todd Summar

Aleksandar Hemon slips fluidly between genres and forms, each project an unexpected new entity, yet still part of a continued conversation with the world around him. Born in Sarajevo, Hemon was visiting Chicago in 1992 during the outbreak of the war in Bosnia. He stayed here and became a United States citizen in 2000, the year his first book, the short story collection The Question of Bruno, was released. His writing, in various ways, has been colored by the experience.

Released last May, Hemon’s darkly comic novel The Making of Zombie Wars was a surprise not only to longtime readers familiar with Hemon’s more serious (but still often humorous) tone but also to his agent, whom he surprised with the manuscript at a meeting in 2013. Though Zombie Wars is, as Hemon describes it, a farce, it tackles themes that have long preoccupied him—the immigrant experience in America, the harmful effects of war, the American privilege of avoiding big problems. Joshua, the protagonist, writes a zombie-centric screenplay in 2003 that reflects the jingoistic mood of the country as the U.S. invades Iraq. Like many of Hemon’s previous books—the 2013 essay collection The Book of My Lives, the 2008 novel The Lazarus Project (a finalist for the National Book Award), and the 2002 novel in stories Nowhere Man, to name a few—Zombie Wars sees the author flaunting the irrelevance of the line between nonfiction and fiction. In fact, he’s often been quoted as saying that there is no Bosnian word for the literary distinction between the two.

I met Hemon at a coffee shop in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago shortly before Christmas. The holiday music playing in the background was a bizarre soundtrack to our conversation. Hemon was later headed to the studio where he writes. Though we had previously met through mutual friends, I never had the opportunity for an in-depth conversation with him. It’s easy to become distracted by Hemon’s impressive identities: critically acclaimed author, contributing writer at The New Yorker, winner of the MacArthur “genius” grant, writer-in-residence at the United Nations Headquarters. But as we spoke, shared a laugh over the cringe-inducing music, and commiserated about the state of U.S. politics, it was easier to see him both as a hard-working writer with a disarming sense of humor and as a concerned citizen of the world.

Todd Summar: You’ve said that you do not see a distinction between nonfiction and fiction and that you think more in terms of story. What determines whether something becomes an essay or fiction, and do you know before beginning?

Aleksandar Hemon: I do usually. Recently, I wrote a nonfiction piece and I turned it in to a major magazine and they had all these fact-checking questions. Some of the facts are not checkable because so much had happened long in the past and had been passed on to me by way of family stories. It’s about my father’s uncle who spent twenty years or so in a Stalinist concentration camp. He was born in Bosnia, then became a Communist, then went to the Soviet Union where he spent thirty years, twenty of which he was in the Gulag. The piece is about how stories are passed until they’re distorted. The original experience is not available, except as a story. I tried to rewrite it as a fiction piece, but that failed because it didn’t need fictionalization. It was embedded in history. Fictionalization was doable but not necessary. It has to be necessary. And this is the only time, as far as I know, that I tried to convert something that I had written as nonfiction into fiction. I don’t have a set of criteria that determines this; I just know this story needs little embellishment. In the novel that I recently published, The Making of Zombie Wars, the starting point was my thinking about a time when I was teaching English as a second language. A student made a pass and I declined it and nothing happened. If something had happened, then I guess that could have been a nonfiction piece in some iteration. But if nothing happened, then what do you do? So I made up something.

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In Conversation With Nickole Brown

December 15, 2015

04-Nickole-KansasInterviewed by: Re’Lynn Hansen, Elizabeth Gerard, Hanna Bourdon, Evan Tingey, DeLaynna Corley, Macy Sego, Toya Wolfe, Courtney Freeh, Shannon Zaid

Nickole Brown’s books include the collection of poems Fanny Says (BOA Editions, 2015), Sister, a novel-in-poems (Red Hen Press, 2007), and the anthology Air Fare: Stories, Poems, and Essays on Flight (Sarabande, 2004), which she coedited with Judith Taylor. She graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She worked at the independent literary press Sarabande Books for ten years. Currently, she is an editor for the Marie Alexander Series for Prose Poetry at White Pine Press and was the National Publicity Consultant for Arktoi Books. Nickole has taught at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, where she continues to live. She continues to teach at the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Murray State.

Punctuate. A Nonfiction Magazine: Fanny, the narrator’s grandmother in your book, isn’t always portrayed as ideal. Were you ever tempted to leave out negative traits about her?

Nickole Brown: There are some things that are left out. But I left them out because I thought they were just too personal. I always think that if you’re going to write about anyone, including yourself, you’ve got to think of them as a persona. And no one is all victim and no one is all hero. We’re all just this messy little knot of good and bad. And Fanny was no different. That didn’t mean that I loved her any less. The section I had the most trouble with was that third section and that deals with her racism, which is very, very hard to explain and also is something that shames me so deeply. I do believe that when you write something that does make you uncomfortable, if it embarrasses you, or if it makes you hot with shame, if you can find a way to write it that is somehow free of self-pity or judgment, then truth will find a way to stand on its own two legs.

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