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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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