Friday, March 27, 2015

Q&A with Roberta Beary

 Roberta Beary, photo by Dave Russo
Roberta Beary is the author of the new poetry collection Deflection. She also has written The Unworn Necklace. She is the haibun editor of Modern Haiku, and she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: You use a variety of forms in your new poetry collection. Do you have any that you particularly prefer? 

A: There are two main forms that I write in. The first is haiku, but it’s not the 5-7-5 you learn in school. Our syllables are more elongated than Japanese, so it sounds wordy, and I read most of my poems out loud.

I discovered the modern form of haiku in 1990 when I went to Japan with my then-husband, a Washington Post economics reporter. I was a trailing spouse. I was an attorney, and I quit my job with the government. We had two young children. We were supposed to stay three years, but it wound up being five.

I got a job with a Japanese law firm, but I had a lot of free time, and I joined a Japanese haiku group, Meguro-ku, in Tokyo. They were very welcoming… 

Q: Were you a poet before this? 

A: I had written poetry since the age of 9, but I didn’t concentrate on haiku. In Japan, haiku is part of daily life. The Japanese papers have haiku contests. Right before I left, I [entered] a haiku contest. When I got home, in 1995, there was a letter saying I had won a commended award….

When I came home, I asked on the Internet about local haiku groups. This coincided with my marriage falling apart. Someone wrote back and said there’s a group called Towpath forming….I joined the group, and we meet every six weeks….

The haibun form [of poetry] is from the 1600s—Basho did The Narrow Road to the North, a travelogue with prose and haiku: haibun. That form just clicked with me….it really speaks to me because the haiku is not supposed to repeat the prose. It resonates with it [and] makes you think about it. It’s very hard to do.

I am the haibun editor [of Modern Haiku]. I like writing fiction, especially flash fiction. It’s a hybrid form, and I consider myself a hybrid person. I don’t like gender stereotypes. I wish there was one thing to call us!... 

Q: Your poetry is often very personal. How do your family members feel about it? 

A: Most of them are OK with it, but I don’t consider them when I’m writing [or I wouldn’t write]. Writers should write for the audience they want to hear [their work]: maybe one or two people who are gay and don’t know how to come out, or who have been assaulted, or who are going through a hard time taking care of their parents. I want them to know they are not the only ones out there.

It’s not completely autobiographical; it is a composite. I don’t believe in family secrets. There is a high rate of teen suicide…and I want people to know that not only does it get better, but you’re not alone—you might feel different, but you’re not... 

Q: Why did you select “Deflection” as the title of the new collection? 

A: It’s from one of the sequences—it’s about deflecting grief or loss, because most of the pieces are about some type of loss. Either somebody died, or the loss of your innocence or of the person you knew as a parent, or your children getting older.

Some people call me the dark diva of haiku. I don’t particularly like that term! There’s one [poem] called "Caretaker I and II." These were all haiku written over the years of taking care of my mom [before her death] and I put them together…. 

Q: Did you write much of the poetry about your mother at the time you were helping her, or later? 

A: I wrote "Nighthawks" a couple of days after she died. The ones about dementia, I wrote a little after; it was too hard to write as it was going on…

[Writing about my mother] wasn’t really therapy, but it was a subject I was drawn to. I had so many friends who had just been through it or were about to, and didn’t know how to articulate what was going on… 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m trying to work on a full-length book of haibun… 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I want to spread the haiku word. It’s a form that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. I have written about the healing power of haiku—it’s better than drugs or therapy. It has helped me so much…it is a very accessible form, but it isn’t an easy form. You have to work at it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Trudy Lewis

Trudy Lewis is the author most recently of the novel The Empire Rolls. She also has written Private Correspondences and The Bones of Garbo. She is director of creative writing at the University of Missouri.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Sally LaChance?

A: Sally LaChance was inspired by at least a couple of real-life figures, such as one friend who is a very fierce animal rights activist and another, an avid hiker, who discovered industrial pollution in a local stream. 

In an archetypal sense, Sally is a manifestation of the huntress, a mix of protectiveness and aggression. In practical terms, Sally emerged from a series of stories I’d been writing, one of which, “Limestone Diner,” appeared in Best American Short Stories. And finally, Sally took shape through the intersections of her multiple roles as park ranger, aunt, sister, daughter, older woman, divorcee, and roller derby emcee.

Q: Your novel is set in Missouri. Could it have taken place somewhere else, or is it deeply rooted in its setting?

A: The Empire Rolls is definitely a Midwestern novel, celebrating the populism, energy, inventiveness, and independence of what some people dismiss as the “Flyover States.” So the book might be relevant to the experience of readers from Wisconsin, Indiana, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Illinois.  

But because the natural world plays such a major role in the novel, it is difficult to imagine the story taking place anywhere but Missouri. I like to think this book captures the stubborn spirit of the Show Me state, a rough mix of skepticism and faith.

Q: Why did you decide to write some of the chapters from Sally’s first-person point of view, and other chapters from a third-person perspective?

A: I wrote the novel in alternating sections because I wanted to include the perspectives of both Sally LaChance and her boyfriend Jared Mayweather. But I didn’t feel as rooted in Mayweather’s identity. Third person gave me the opportunity to suggest his voice without limiting myself to his perspective. There’s some distance and irony in these sections—although I believe it is a fond irony.

When I started writing, I tried both first person and third person and I liked the way they worked together, like melody and harmony.

Q: You’ve said the novel ties in to the Iraq War. Could you explain more about those connections?

A: Several of my characters, including Gabriella Hernandez or “Gigi Haddist,” are veterans of the Gulf War. In addition, there is a local mosque whose members are beginning to experience persecution on the basis of their ethic and religious identities—an indirect result of the conflict in the Middle East. So the story takes place in the shadow of war and the roller derby itself is a spectacle of mock violence.

The plot of the story is a commentary on war too, because it forces Sally to confront and reconsider the role of violence in defending her territory—the park, the animals, the skaters, and the young people in her care.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My current project is a science fiction novel about jellyfish.  Some scientists believe that the species turritopsis dohrnii, or the immortal jellyfish, holds the secret to eternal life because it can survive harsh environmental conditions by lingering for years or decades in its polyp form. 

In my novel, Medusa’s Bell, a corporation has patented the process as a means of extending life indefinitely. My protagonist, the daughter of a corporate executive and the sister of a rogue scientist, is forced to come to terms with her family’s political and biological decisions about immortality, religion, and genetic continuity.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think it’s important to note that The Empire Rolls is set in the fall of 2007, just before the 2008 recession. It was around this time that roller derby experienced a dramatic revival. 

For me, this date also marks the point when it became difficult for the average citizen to ignore America’s decline as a world power—thus, the title of the book, "The Empire Rolls." I like to think that there is a measure of hope in this realization—that once we understand power is not static or monolithic, there is more room for us to move. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Philip Connors

Philip Connors is the author of the new memoir All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found, which focuses on the impact of his brother's suicide. He also has written Fire Season, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Harper's and the Paris Review. He lives in New Mexico.

Q: You write of your life in the years after your brother’s suicide, “Anything went. Anything was permissible, as long as I lived.” How did your brother’s death affect the choices you made?

A: On the one hand, I felt as if I could do or be anything after his suicide, because nothing really mattered anymore. Life felt like a cruel joke. What did I care what happened to me? If I wanted to hitchhike across the country in the dead of winter, I just went ahead and did it without a thought.

On the other hand, in order to maintain my own personal vigil for him, I felt as if I couldn’t allow myself to be happy or content. To be happy or content would be a violation of my grief for him. So I made counterintuitive choices to ensure my feelings of alienation: working in the wrong job, living in the wrong neighborhood, and so forth.

These two impulses were at war with each other for years, the one that said I could do or be anything, and the one that said, Sure, do or be anything—as long as it doesn’t make you happy.

Q: You describe your brother’s presence in your life after his death: “He was always with me, though dimly remembered and void of substance, like a phantom limb.” What impact did writing the book have on your feelings about your brother?

A: I don’t think the writing changed much about my relationship with him. He’s been gone almost 20 years, so I’ve had time to work out my thoughts regarding him and his death.

I wasn’t using the book to sort through my feelings or achieve some new understanding of him; I had a certain story I wanted to tell—about what it’s like to be a "suicide survivor"—and I told it as best I could. And some of what I feel about him is necessarily very private, and should stay that way.

Q: Your title is “All the Wrong Places,” and you describe various situations in which you found yourself in your 20s by saying, “I was always ending up in all the wrong places.” Which places seemed especially wrong to you, and how did you end up settling in New Mexico?

A: The whole time I worked at The Wall Street Journal, it felt pretty wrong. I remember opening the editorial pages every day and reading about how the poor weren’t taxed enough, or how we should be waging all-out war across the Middle East, or how George W. Bush was the second coming of Winston Churchill.

I found it pretty hard to agree with any of it, although it was fascinating to have a glimpse into the minds of those who believed these things, to see how reality can be ignored in the service of advancing an ideology.

The book ends with me finally finding the right place, and I owe it all to my friend M.J., who invited me to visit her at a wilderness fire tower in New Mexico, where she was working during the summer of 2002.

Long story short: she knew I needed out of New York City, so she arranged for me to take over her job in the lookout. She basically handed me her mountain as a gift and said: Here, you need this more than I do.

So I flew back to New York, quit my job in an office tower in Lower Manhattan, and returned to finish out that season in a fire tower in the New Mexico wilderness—two places about as far apart as you can get in the United States of America. But I’ve been there every summer since, going on 14 years now, and have made a life in southwest New Mexico, a place where I feel very much at home.

Q: Was the writing process similar or different between this book and your first book, Fire Season?

A: I wrote Fire Season fairly quickly, most of it in one six-month burst. I knew most of what I wanted to say ahead of time, so it was merely a matter of figuring out how to say it. It’s a book about an experience I live summer after summer, and as a compulsive note-taker, I had a lot of raw material at hand. There weren’t a bunch of drafts. It just sort of flowed right out of me.

This book was more difficult. It covers many years and many diverse experiences. A lot of the work of getting it right involved deciding what to leave out — writing a draft of something and thinking, No, that won’t do, and either trying again or discarding it altogether.

And the tone was tricky: how do you write a book about suicide that people will actually want to read? Working some humor into it felt crucial. I have boxes full of paper that serve as a monument to the many failures that were required to come up with a narrative that, in the end, I think works.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished a couple of essays, smaller things: one on wildfires and renewal (for Orion magazine), one a memoir of growing up Catholic in Minnesota in the 1980s (which will be published in the next issue of n+1). They were things in the works for a while, and it’s been nice to get them out the door.

At the moment I’m working on nothing. Finishing this book left the well of my creative impulses pretty empty. I plan to sit very quietly and hope the well starts to fill again. It may take some time.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 27

March 27, 1923: Louis Simpson born.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Q&A with Deborah Mathis

Deborah Mathis is the author of the new book Unlucky Number: The Murder of Lottery Winner Abraham Shakespeare, written with Gregory Todd Smith. Her other books are Yet a Stranger: Why Black Americans Still Don't Feel At Home, What God Can Do: How Faith Changes Lives for the Better, and Sole Sisters: The Joys and Pains of Single Black Women. Her journalism career includes working as a syndicated columnist and serving as White House correspondent for Gannett News Service.

Q: How did you end up writing this book about Abraham Shakespeare, and how did you and Gregory Todd Smith, who was involved in the story, work together on the project?

A: I was introduced to Greg by someone who knew his story and that he was eager to reduce it to writing. He and I became fast friends and developed a mutual trust, which, of course, is essential to any collaborative effort. 

My first debrief with him was five hours long, uninterrupted, in which he told me the story from start to finish. I was in contact with him throughout the research and writing process, double-checking facts, names, addresses, etc.

Q: You write, “ Like many other winners, the man at the center of this story neglected to surround himself with wise, experienced counsel but rather relied on old friends and his own well-meaning but often misguided instincts to help him manage his multimillion-dollar winnings.” What does Shakespeare’s story say about the lottery system?

A: The lottery system is flawed in many ways, not the least being its convenience as a funding source for essential programs in many states (like public education). 

But the fallout from sudden, dramatic wealth is not something most people are prepared for and it takes a team of honest, experienced professionals to help one manage it. Most state lotteries recommend that and some provide a straight line to resources, but I don't get the impression that they really push it.

I'm not saying it should be mandatory -- that would carry its own hazards -- but the states should do more to educate players and winners. And those that require winners to go public (like Florida, where Abraham won) should stop that now. It just paints a bulls-eye for the scammers and beggars.

Q: How did you conduct the research for this book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: I had access to all of the secret audio recordings Greg made with Dee Dee Moore and others. There was also a treasury of court documents and considerable local and national media coverage to draw from. And, of course, I had complete access to Greg. 

What I found most surprising was the extent and entanglement of Dee Dee Moore's deceitful web.

Q: This is a true crime book, and a departure from your previous books. You’ve also worked as a journalist for many years. Do you have a preference in terms of the type of writing you like to do?

A: In many ways this was easier than the non-fiction books I've done before, which were more or less treatises on issues of race, single womanhood, and spirituality. 

I say that because the facts were ready-made, whereas with the other works, I had to create a narrative, to think about what I want to discuss and how I want to write about it. 

The challenge with Unlucky Number came in trying to keep all of the names, dates and occurrences straight, both for me and for the reader. There were so many to keep track of. Fortunately, I had the late, great writer Willie Morris' advice to guide me: "Tell a story in chronological order." 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I'm taking a break for now, but am churning on an idea for a novel. It would be my first work of fiction. Got to get my nerve and stamina up for that!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Deborah Mathis, please click here.

March 26

March 26, 1874: Robert Frost born.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Q&A with Sheila Weller

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and how did you select these three women as the subjects? 

A: My previous book, about three singer-songwriters, was a big hit. My first thought was that I didn’t want to do [a similar format] but then I thought, Why not! I’ve been in journalism for a long time and have been aware of how women in journalism in general—my field is print—how the feminist movement…changed the actual idea of what news is. That’s the idea I ran with.

Then I wanted three women. Katie [Couric] and Diane [Sawyer] were obvious. Barbara [Walters] had done her own book…it was hard to find the third. My husband, who concentrates on international events, [suggested] Christiane Amanpour. It made total sense.

They are all totally iconic—if you see a picture, you know who they are. Their brands are different, but they leap out at us. They’re big deals. They’re real journalists, but huge personalities. 

Q: You’ve mentioned that things changed for women in TV news since the time these three women started. What impact did they have on those changes? 

A: My thesis changed from how women changed news, to these are the three most determined women I’ve ever seen. Did they change it? They benefited from the changes, and pushed the changes. They had to go up against the sexism that exists…they pushed up against conventions.

They also [went] further. When Katie went to Today, Jane Pauley had been very much accepted in the second position, of being the woman there, [although] she was easily as popular as Bryant Gumbel. When Katie came in…she is tough and confident and determined, and she said you’re not going to just give me fluffy stories. That’s just one example.

They benefited from Barbara taking the slings and arrows. They benefited from the mandate in 1971…that [the networks] had to hire women—but they each pushed it farther. It’s amazing that until 2006 there was no female anchor…

With two of three anchors, the feeling of the news changed. If you are one of the people [who watches], having a woman give it to you changes [the dynamic]…I missed it when they were gone…. 

Q: You write that you were unable to interview the three main subjects of the book. How might the book have been different if you had been able to talk to them? 

A: So many people bring that up, I probably should have tried harder. The truth is, publicists at the networks have very little interest in giving authors access to the stars. Certain people—Walter Isaacson, Douglas Brinkley, Ken Auletta—can. But [the publicists] are interested in putting [the anchors] on the covers of magazines so they can get good ratings…and these stories are almost uniformly positive…. 

Q: This is your second book featuring three women. Are you planning to continue with that format? 

A: I just got an e-mail from my agent—it may be another woman book, but maybe not just three but more collective. 

Q: Why do you like that format of three women? 

A: The first time, when I conceived the Girls Like Us idea, only my sister thought it was a good idea. I don’t think there were too many books with three, where you spend a block of time with one, then the other, then the other. It just worked. Even while I was writing it, I wasn’t sure [it would].

I have noticed [more] books now, with three women, two women, two different people…it’s kind of a recognized format now. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Sometimes people ask me what the most surprising thing I learned was—it was that Christiane Amanpour had a Liza Minnelli scrapbook.

I really admire them. I discovered how hard that business is. Hats off to those women who can survive in it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb