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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Jul102018

Anastasia Edel

How did you become a writer? 

It was a two-part process, with a thirty-year-long gap in between. 

When I was five years old, I fell into a pothole. I’d been walking home from a store, holding my mother’s hand, and suddenly the familiar disappeared—the poplars, the cracked asphalt, the torn mesh fence. The sky remained, but smaller and farther up, and all around me were telephone wires—red, yellow, white. Dry and quiet inside. In a few minutes (which must have seemed quite long to my mother) a passerby pulled me out. The scratches on my elbows and knees healed quickly, but what remained was the intense awareness of a reality shift. I spent a good part of my childhood disappearing into imaginary potholes, and though it would be years before I’d actually start committing some of them to paper, I think of that incident as an entry point of sorts, an initiation into possibilities afforded by a shift in perspective.  

Part two happened some twelve years ago, when, late at night, I sat down at the kitchen table to write a reminiscence of my trip to the south of France. I remember deriving immense pleasure from describing all the things that had struck me—the lavender fields, the way the sky seemed to have absorbed their color, the swallows darting along the dusty road that zigzagged towards the sea.  I also remember how that story should have ended: with a turn towards the airport, and a flight home. Instead, the person at the wheel—no longer me— turned in the opposite direction. I didn’t know it back then, but at that moment my life changed drastically. Slowly, writing would subsume everything else. A career I’d been pursuing would come to an end, and the new path I found myself on had no set destination. I embraced it—or it embraced me. Either way, I’ve been walking it ever since. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). 

I grew up in the last two decades of the Soviet Union, so my literary sensibility was formed, not surprisingly, by Russian classics. Chekhov, with his humor, his insights into the human soul, and his imperceptible shifts between light and despair, was my favorite. From the Soviet literature, there was the satirical duo of Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, quite possibly the funniest writers on earth.  By high school, I could quote “The Twelve Chairs” and “The Golden Calf” virtually from any place. 

Then, in 1986, when I was in sixth grade, my mother exchanged twenty-five kilograms of used newspapers for a coupon that entitled us to buy a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “Master and Margarita,” now in wide circulation.  I read it in three nights, and to this day remain under its spell. It has everything a novel should have—language, satire, adventure, magic, philosophy, invention; good and evil. Each time I read it, I find something I haven’t noticed before.  

I also had a practical insight into the writing profession early on: by a strike of good luck I had married into a writers’ family long before harboring any literary ambitions. My husband’s father and grandfather used to work for Russia’s famous satirical magazine “Krokodil,” and my husband grew up in a writers’ cooperative in Moscow, with neighbors like Vladimir Voinovich, Bella Akhmadulina, Vasily Aksenov. I had lived in that house too. And though we’d all left Russia, the “Writers’ House” stayed with us: our family conversations invariably revolved around literature. That extended “steeping” period proved to be of an enormous advantage to me when I started writing. Setting out, I had readily available advice from fine writers and critics right under my roof. They encouraged me, cheered me, and saved me from obvious missteps.    

I also studied craft formally at the Pacific University MFA Program in Oregon, where I was challenged and nurtured by great writers—Jack Driscoll, Frank Gaspar, Kellie Wells, Valerie Laken. But I owe the most David Long, my first semester advisor. By refusing to cut me any slack for not being a native speaker, and by insisting I ditch abstractions in favor of concrete things, David awoke me to a higher level of writing—deeper, clearer and emotionally resonant. That first semester was like falling into one of my potholes: I emerged a different writer. 

When and where do you write? 

When I started writing, I was working full time and had two young kids, so I had this insane schedule of writing between 9pm and 2 am. I knew every single coffee shop in the area that stayed open until midnight, knew how to slip into my own house without waking anyone up and write a couple more hours at my own desk, knew how to get up in the morning, take the kids to school, somehow make it to the office in the city and not fall asleep at the meetings. I wrote on buses, trains, airplanes and sometimes at work, when I thought people couldn’t figure out what I was doing. 

Now that writing is my main job I can work during daytime, and I am still in awe. This is when I try to do most of my “fresh” writing and save evenings for editing and research. 

What are you working on now? 

A book tentatively titled “The Gone Empire,” a meditation on the strange lives we lived in USSR. It continuously stuns me that the country I grew up in, along with millions of other Soviet citizens, no longer exists. But we do. So the book is an attempt to recapture the lost world, to record our collective memories before they’re buried under the sand of time, and before others could manipulate them for their own gain.  

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I suffer from fear of not being able to write a new good piece. The only remedy for that is to sit down and start writing. There are periods, of course, when conquering that fear results in pages of merciless garbage, and that is draining. That’s when I stop writing for a day or two, and just read, think, and run. Eventually I get to a point when I can either solve the problem, or at least talk about it. Invariably, something happens, and the fire is reignited. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? 

“Don’t kill all your characters in Chapter 5.” 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Writing is part magic, part craft. There’s nothing you can do about magic: it either happens or it doesn’t. But learning the craft is possible. So while you’re waiting for the muse to visit you, work on your craft. Study writers who succeeded where you’re struggling, push yourself hard, never coast: the gods of writing are very demanding. A writer is this lonely creature that dares to inserts herself between the world and whatever it is doing at the moment and demand: “Look here. I have something important to tell you.” It’s an opening, an opportunity and an enormous challenge. The better equipped you are, the higher the chances that you will be heard. 

Anastasia Edel grew up in southern Russia during the last years of the Soviet Union. She graduated with a degree in English and German studies and worked as a fiction translator. A recipient of the British Government Chevening Award, she moved to England for postgraduate studies, and then to the US, earning her MFA in Writing from Pacific University.  She's the author of “Russia: Putin's Playground” (Callisto Media, 2016). Her prose has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Project Syndicate, Quartz, and World Literature Today. She lives in California and teaches Russian politics and culture at OLLI UC Berkeley.

Tuesday
Jul032018

Anne Marie Pace

How did you become a writer?

I think I was writing stories as soon as I could form sentences on paper. One of the first stories I wrote, back in first grade, I eventually turned into my book PIGLOO, so I’m grateful to my mom for keeping all my work. In middle school, I had a stack of manila folders, each with a different story in it. I liked to draw the characters (families always had 10-12 children) and maps. So I don’t know that I became a writer—I just was a writer. That said, I decided to work towards becoming a professional writer when I realized how much I loved the books I was sharing with my children, and I wanted to write books like those.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

Because I loved to write, I always gravitated to the teachers who supported me. Mrs. Grinder let me be in the sixth-grade creative writing club, even though I was in fifth grade. In high school, Mrs. Catron and Mrs. Picardi encouraged me to write fiction. More recently, I was inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda and HAMILTON to write a more densely layered rhyming manuscript. My published rhymers are in simple couplets, and writing something more complicated was both a challenge and a joy.

When and where do you write?

Mostly I write on the couch. I know that’s not very exciting, but it’s true. I could describe the couch, I suppose, but it’s nothing special—just a green couch. Usually my dogs are nearby and my cats come to visit occasionally.

What are you working on now?

In the last few weeks, I’ve been doing final edits on the two picture books that are coming out in the next year: VAMPIRINA IN THE SNOW from Disney-Hyperion, and SUNNY’S TOW TRUCK SAVES THE DAY from Abrams Appleseed. I also just attended a fabulous writing workshop with legendary editor Patti Gauch and one of my favorite writers, Newbery Honor- and Printz Honor-winning author Gary D. Schmidt. So I’m diving back into the middle-grade I’ve been working on for some time.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I don’t think it’s possible to be a writer and not be occasionally, or frequently, plagued by self-doubt, which is really what writer’s block is. So yes, of course!

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Well, all the writing clichés have some truth to them, so at any given time, I could probably find something like “read read read” or “butt in chair” is resonating with me currently. I’m not sure this is advice, but back when I worked on a desktop, I printed this out from Jane Smiley and taped it to the computer because it reminded me to remain focused and not worry too, too much: “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.” 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Set goals that you have control over—you can’t set a goal to win an award or to reach a certain level of sales. You canhave a goal to write the best books you can. And try every day to move forward, even if it’s just an inch. As Vampirina says in the first Vampirina book, “It doesn’t matter if you take one giant leap or many tiny steps, as long as you are working toward your goal.”

Anne Marie Pace’s books include GROUNDHUG DAY (Disney-Hyperion, 2017, illustrated by Christopher Denise); PIGLOO (Henry Holt, 2016, illustrated by Lorna Hussey); and the VAMPIRINA BALLERINA series (Disney-Hyperion, illustrated by LeUyen Pham), the inspiration for the hit Disney Junior animated series VAMPIRINA. New in 2018 are BUSY-EYED DAY (Beach Lane Books, illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon) and the fourth Vampirina book, VAMPIRINA IN THE SNOW. Find her at:

http://www.annemariepace.com,

https://www.facebook.com/VampirinaBallerina

and @annemariepace.

Tuesday
Jun262018

Elizabeth Rush

How did you become a writer?

Katie Ford, the fabulous poet, is the person who turned me into a writer. I had been working on a collection of poems that would become my senior thesis and Katie had been assigned to mentor me through the process. I remember handing her the drafts I had labored over for months. She read them and gave them back a week or so later and told me, “this isn’t poetry.” I was a little devastated at first. Then I became determined. Katie sat down with me for an hour every week (now as a professor myself I understand what a tremendous time commitment this is) and she taught me how to edit my own work. How to return to it again and again and again until the language yielded wisdom all its own. She always told me to aim towards exactitude while editing in the mystery. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I read as much poetry as I do nonfiction. One of the biggest influences on my latest book, RISING: Dispatches from the New American Shoreis Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, which recently won the Nobel Prize in literature. She tells the story of the nuclear explosion from the perspective of those who lived through and returned to the land after the event. The entire book is written in the voices of real residents of the region and is the result of nearly a decade of interviewing and meticulous transcription. The cumulative effect is that of a kind of polyphonic chorus, that depicts with incredible specificity what it was like not only to live through this environmental catastrophe but also to bear witness to the end of the Soviet Union. And of course I am always indebted to the work of so very many poets: C.D. Wright, Jamaal May, Robert Haas, Brenda Hillman, Ada Limón, Tracy Smith, I could go on and on. 

When and where do you write? 

I have an office in my house and you can find me there Monday-Friday from roughly 6 am (or 7 am) until 1 pm. Mornings are my sacred writing time and I try, when I can, to defend it fiercely. 

What are you working on now? 

Well, it looks like next year I will be sailing, with the National Science Foundation and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council to Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. Thwaites is literally one of the most remote regions in the world (only 28 people have ever stood atop the glacier) and yet in many ways the rate at which this glacier melting will determine the future of coastal communities around the world. That’s because Thwaites is considered “the cork” to the West Antarctic ice sheet. Its deterioration destabilizes the whole of the ice sheet behind it. And because Thwaites is so remote we have little data from region and so I will be accompanying three research teams as they investigate how quickly this glacier has retreated in the geologic past and just how quickly it is retreating now. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Discipline is what helps me push through writer’s block. Writing is my job. I show up every day. Some days are better than others. If I am having a particularly tough time with a piece I tend to wake up super early and get to work. Sometimes writing with a foggy mind––in the space between dreaming and wakefulness––helps me to take chances I might not otherwise. If that doesn’t work I take a long walk or bike ride. Sometimes wringing my body out helps my mind make creative leaps. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Revise. Revise. Revise. Revise. Revise. Revise. Revise. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Create a writing practice. If you want to be a hotshot basketball player you carve out time to practice. Do the same with your writing. Figure out when your mind is most lithe and write during that time. You need not carve out five hours of every day. Start with an hour or two. Are you best early in the morning? Then set aside the same hour every day and fill it with your writing. 

Elizabeth Rush’s work explores how humans adapt to changes enacted upon them by forces seemingly beyond their control, from ecological transformation to political revolution. She is the author of Rising: The Unsettling of the American Shore (Milkweed Editions, 2018) and Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon, Myanmar (Global Directions, 2014.) Her work has appeared in Harpers, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Granta, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, Le Monde Diplomatique and others. Rush is the recipient of fellowships from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project, the Society for Environmental Journalism, the National Society of Science Writers and the Metcalf Institute. In 2016, she was awarded the Howard Foundation Fellowship in creative nonfiction by Brown University where she teaches creative nonfiction.

Tuesday
Jun192018

Anthony Madrid

How did you become a writer?

My parents were expressive people, so I was too. Early on, I started to see expressiveness as a form of ordinary magic, the only one I was any good at, so naturally I pursued it. Seemed like the only way I was ever going to glamor anybody, and I really wanted to do that. Pitiful enough, but there it is.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

If I list a hundred poets and novelists, it will just be meaningless, a rigmarole of completely received bigshots. Instead, I’ll take the opportunity to name my mentor: Vivian Gornick, author of Fierce Attachments and The Odd Woman and the City. From her writing and her talk I’ve learned as much as from everything else put together. I’ve known her half my life.

When and where do you write? 

Whenever, wherever; I’m not particular. I have no prejudices against computers or pencils-and-paper or any of that. Morning, noon, night, they’re all the same to me. I do prefer silence, I will say that.

What are you working on now? 

The usual. Translations, poems. I want to do this Russian children’s poem into English. I may have just found an illustrator for it, literally day before yesterday. It’s a very nice piece, 121 lines. I’m memorizing it, in Russian, in preparation for translating.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

The thing that happens to me doesn’t deserve to be called writer’s block. It doesn’t hurt.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Joel Craig said to me, regarding delays in the production of his first book: “I don’t need it to be done fast; I need it to be done right.” That’s the kind of thing I always need to hear.

What’s your advice to new writers?

(This is just for baby poets; I don’t know anything about how to do fiction.) Poets, you have to vigorously separate what you Actually Like from everything you only sorta like. Study your pleasure closely. Because! all your poems and definitely all your books had better be the kind of thing you Actually Like. Otherwise, what the hell are we even doing here? Look, you will fail to impress all kinds of people it would have been nice to impress, no matter what you do. The only thing that protects you from the pain of that is the fact that you yourself actually like your own stuff. If you ignore this principle, if you write a book, say, that is formidable nine ways from Tuesday, piled high with sophistication and impressive this ’n’ that, but which you don’t actually like, then what ends up happening is you helplessly side with the people who don’t care about your work. Next stop is the bottle.

Bio: I was raised in Maryland, currently live in Texas, turn fifty this year. I am the author of two books of poems: I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (2012), and Try Never (2017). A book of children’s poems for adults is coming out later in 2018, titled There Was an Old Man with a Springbok.

Tuesday
Jun122018

Tom McAllister

How did you become a writer?

I think there are two parts to this answer: 1) how did I get into books and writing in the first place, and 2) how did I transition that into doing it professionally. 

I started reading and writing in earnest when I was in 7thgrade, after reading my first “real” book for school, Of Mice and Men. My father had always been a voracious reader, so the house was filled with books anyway, and we played lots of word games (Scrabble, games in the newspaper, etc), and so it’s not like reading was new to me, but it was the first time I thought about writing as a real thing one could do. 

In college, I started as a journalism major because I was pretty good at writing and knew that was a job that could lead to being paid for writing (in theory). I hated those classes, though. I took an elective with Justin Cronin, who had not yet become the big, famous author he is now, and that changed my life. Though it was probably more gradual than this, I remember it as a single moment of epiphany, saying, “Okay, this is what I want to do with my life. I want to be like him.” He helped me take writing seriously, and helped me get into grad school, where, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by talented, dedicated writers who pushed me to demand much more of myself. 

I still didn’t publish anything at all for another 2 years after grad school, but that was how it got started. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

Teachers: Justin Cronin, Frank Conroy, Charles D’Ambrosio. Also a number of non-writers who taught me in high school and college and encouraged and supported me in incredible ways. 

I think the question of influential books is a little tricky, because the books I love now are not the ones I loved when I was 20, and vice versa. But some books that have had a huge impact on the writer I am right now: Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut), Pastoralia (George Saunders), Play it As it Lays (Joan Didion), The Antagonist (Lynn Coady), inscriptions for headstones (Matthew Vollmer), Jesus’ Son (Denis Johnson), An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (Elizabeth McCracken), Men We Reaped (Jesmyn Ward), everything by Jo Ann Beard. 

When and where do you write? 

I teach at Temple University, and lately I’ve had early classes, so on teaching days, I try to get work done in the afternoon before my wife gets home. On non-teaching days, I try to write in the morning, getting most of my work done before lunch time, if possible. It’s when my head is relatively clear and it prevents me from doing that thing where you keep tricking yourself into thinking the day is infinite, and eventually you’ll get to it. I’m fortunate, too, that my job allows me a summer break, when I try to get a ton of writing done, if possible.

Where I write: the answer is boring. I have an office in my house, with a standard desk and a standard computer and the standard knick-knacks on and around the desk. 

What are you working on now? 

I’ve had two novels come out in the past 16 months (they were both written over a long period, and the release dates are sort of a fluke), and all the activity around that has slowed me down some. I’m in the very early stages of drafting a new novel, but I hate even calling it a novel; right now, it’s 10,000 words in a document on my computer. It’s nothing. Maybe in a year it will be something. 

I’ve always been working on a number of essays that I’ve been half-writing for years. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Right now, as I’m being more unproductive than usual, I don’t think I would call it writer’s block. I’m distracting myself. I’m on social media and I’m obsessing over the news, and I’m wasting time. That’s not about being blocked, though; that’s about slipping out of my good habits and doing sloppy work. 

The only time I could say I was feeling truly blocked, unable to do anything, was in grad school, when the deadlines paralyzed me with fear. Now, I have so many notes, and so many partially started ideas, and so many writing prompts I could use, that I only have myself to blame if I’m not getting something done. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Is it cheating if I name two? 

One, from a variety of writers and teachers: if you’re getting bored while you’re reading it, then it’s boring. Don’t try to convince yourself it’s not.

Two, from my friend Dave Housley, who has written a number of books (most recently This Darkness Got to Give): don’t be afraid to get weird. Take that dumb idea you’re afraid nobody is going to like, and write that, because only you can do it. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Stop measuring yourself against other writers. Very, very few of us will ever achieve anything close to fame or longevity; the only goal is to tell the truest, best, most interesting version of the story you want to tell. Every single other thing is out of your control. 

Tom McAllister is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower’s Handbook, and the memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. He co-hosts the podcast Book Fight! and is the nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse. He lives in New Jersey and teaches at Temple University.