Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Q&A with Dale Russakoff

Dale Russakoff is the author of the new book The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools. It examines what happened after Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg announced a $100 million gift to the Newark, N.J., schools in 2010. Russakoff worked for The Washington Post as a reporter for 28 years. She lives in Montclair, N.J.

Q: Why did you decide to write The Prize?

A: I had in mind there was a book here when the [Mark] Zuckerberg gift [to the Newark schools in 2010] was announced on Oprah. There was a little item in The Star-Ledger that it was about to happen. I was sitting and watching it, and hearing these dreams that these powerful men had for the Newark school district, I thought it would be absolutely fascinating.

I thought it would be a real opportunity for the education reform movement—what does it mean? I started off thinking it would be a magazine piece, but I realized I didn’t just want to do one story. I had been a journalist for 30 years [without writing a book]—I felt this really was my book.

Q: How did you research the book?

A: I decided I wanted to get as close to the people coming up with the strategies and plans, and at the same time be at ground level with the parents, students, and teachers when the reforms are coming at you.

Working at The Washington Post and covering government, I’m interested in the big public-policy ideas that you can trace down to the person whose life is supposed to change—and does it? Why or why not? I wanted to follow it back and forth between reporting on the people behind the effort and the people in the neighborhood.

Q: You write, “What [then-Newark Mayor Cory] Booker, [New Jersey Governor Chris] Christie, and Zuckerberg set out to achieve in Newark had not been accomplished in modern times—turning a failing urban school district into one of universally high achievement.” Why was Newark selected for this project, and how successful do you believe it’s been so far?

A: Newark was selected because Cory Booker and Chris Christie got together and decided they wanted to make this a national model, and they would need a philanthropist to fund it. It was selected because Cory Booker is an effective fundraiser. He was able to sweep Mark Zuckerberg off his feet.

From what I understand, people close to Zuckerberg and to Booker said there wasn’t a lot of due diligence Zuckerberg put into this. He was pretty wowed by Booker and Christie. It was his first act as a philanthropist.

He had never been to Newark. He thought at the time that you actually could go to an urban district and come up with a model, and solve the educational issues and apply them to [other] cities and change education in America.

That’s how a startup works, but not how schools and education work; there was not the appreciation for how education works in each community and how it is its own ecosystem. There is no model that you can scale up and apply to Chicago, Boise, Toledo. I think Zuckerberg did learn that.

Q: How successful do you think it was?

A: I think people like Zuckerberg, Booker, and Christie would say their great success was the [increase] in students at charter schools…now on the path to 40 percent.

The downside is for the district schools; the money goes with the kids and the district schools were put in a state of fiscal crisis…[there were] layoffs, the system is in an upheaval.

They put effort into improving the system…but you don’t have resources to deal with the problems that children bring into the classrooms. If you consolidate two of the lowest-performing schools, the schools don’t have enough social workers, guidance counselors—they’re overwhelmed…

Q: How was the book’s title picked, and how would you answer the question posed in the subtitle?

A: It’s a constant battle. The publisher came up with the subtitle. [At first I thought] the book doesn’t pose or answer that question—but it is a big question in education. There’s always a battle between [administrators] and unions, now there’s a grand battle…the philanthropists are now part of the mix.

President Obama and [Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan with Race to the Top; merit pay is a big factor—there are all these other forces in the last 15 years that are now part of the struggle. That is the big context for the book. And "The Prize" represents the money and power sitting in the school district budget….

Q: You include many stories about individual students and teachers in the book. How did you find the specific people to include, and how have they responded to the book?

A: The teachers and students—that came from spending time in individual district schools. I chose Central High School because Ras Baraka was the principal. I had no idea he would become mayor [of Newark], but he was a big factor in the grassroots movement, he had a longtime role as an activist and school leader, and he was the son of [activist and poet] Amiri Baraka.

I wanted to get to see what he was doing within the school, and I [also] spent time in two schools in the poorest ward of Newark, the South Ward…these schools had some of the biggest challenges. From having been in these schools, I found certain teachers and students who illustrated the challenges and the possibilities.

These people have been the most enthusiastic about the book. That’s been the most rewarding thing about it. They feel their voices have been heard. In the process, [it seemed] people on the ground didn’t have a voice.

Q: What surprised you most as you worked on the book?

A: I guess I was surprised that $100 million went so quickly. I was stunned to learn that the Newark school district [budget] is $1 billion a year. Five years at $20 million a year, it puts it in perspective: How could it be an amount of money that really transformed what happened in Newark?

There were years of corruption and mismanagement. Mark Zuckerberg has an enormous fortune, and gave a seemingly infinite amount to Newark, but it’s little compared to the amount that goes to the schools every day.

Also, I was surprised by the amount of money the schools have to do business with contractors and consultants. Public education is a $600 billion enterprise—as big as the defense budget, really. Trying to make sure the money is spent in the best interest of the kids, and not of whoever is trying to get the money, is overwhelming.

One dollar of $10 goes to consulting firms—that’s $20 million. There was some good work, but a lot wasn’t well spent. There’s a quote from one of the community leaders: Everyone’s getting paid, and [a student] still can’t read.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m not….I almost feel this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It represents so much to me that I’ve cared about as a journalist and as a person.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People keep saying, What would you do?...Mark Zuckerberg had a lot of naivete at the outset. He thought he saw what was wrong, how to fix it. Those of us on the outside don’t have the ability to script a fix.

What’s powerful is one charter school I saw up close. It got more per-pupil money to the school rather than the central administration. It used the extra money to build support around the kids and the teachers, so when crises happened in kids’ lives, the school was prepared to deal with them.

When kids struggled to keep up, they had resources for them. There were two certified teachers in the classroom for K-3, and a certified tutor per grade for K-3. When somebody couldn’t keep up, there was a tutor….

It seemed as if you can get more resources to the building, and use it in a way that supports learning and teachers, you can make a difference in a high-poverty environment.

I felt if there was a way to do a forensic audit of the money in the school districts, how traditional schools support principals and build strategic support for kids and teachers, it could make a difference. It’s saying to the community, you have to take the resources and address this, not have a model.

People say, What’s right, top-down or bottom-up reform? It’s a combination. You have to have the resources and run it well but also have support at the classroom and school level. That wasn’t the plan in Newark.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Eric Lotke

Eric Lotke is the author most recently of the novel Making Manna. He also has written the novel 2044.  An attorney and advocate, he has written for a variety of publications, including The Huffington Post and Truthout, and he has worked for the Service Employees International Union and the Campaign for America's Future. He is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Making Manna? 

A: Hmmm. The world is a mess. The newspapers are all bad news. Iraq, the economy, Congress … yuck.

Well, I didn’t want to write about that. I wanted to write something nice. Something happy. Escapism. You deserve a break today. You bought my book: I owe you a good time.

Except that would be boring. I couldn’t go that far. It’s a happy tale but between the lines is a critical social commentary, especially about our justice system. Making Manna is about victims who don’t get what they need – protection and healing — because the system is too busy locking people up for no good reason.

But that’s only if you want to think about it. What the pages show is clever, creative, enterprising people finding their way. The critical social commentary is wrapped up in a story of resilience and hope.

Where exactly did the idea come from? Spoiler alert! I once worked on a death penalty case where the defendant was the product of an incestuous rape. Talk about bad news. I started there but gave it a better ending. 

Q: Poverty is a constant theme throughout the book. How do you see it affecting your characters? 

A: What an interesting question. I think the characters are like a lot of poor people. First, they don’t see themselves as poor. They don’t have time to be poor; they’re too busy making ends meet. They need to work an extra shift so they can fix that door.

So at the same time that they are defined by poverty and scarcity, they are also defined by constant success at putting food on the table. A lot of American poverty looks like that. 

Q: How did you come up with the book's title, and what does it signify for you? 

A: First, Making Manna is about food. Food appears throughout the book, as a matter of sustenance and independence. In the beginning, the characters learn that boiling spaghetti is cheaper than the McDonald’s Dollar Menu. By the end they’ve opened a bakery.

Second, it’s about more than food. In the Bible, Manna comes from heaven. In the real world, we need to make our own. Whether Manna is bread, money, free time or a legal action, we have to make it ourselves. Manna won’t come to us.

But please don’t understand this as rugged individualism. Yes, they have to make manna on their own. But they aren’t truly alone. They don’t make manna by themselves. Everybody is always giving and receiving help from others.

They survive as a community. When you need a tool, someone else has it on their shelf …and can even show you how to use it. 

Q: You've written that the book is a Horatio Alger story. What do you see as the elements of a modern-day Horatio Alger tale? 

A: Thanks, I do think of it as Horatio Alger. I present it that way in my "coming out" blog post

Horatio Alger does two things. First, he’s full of good old-fashioned virtue. Alger shows that you can do the right thing and still come out ahead. Nice guys do not need to finish last.

Second, Horatio Alger shows readers the truth behind things they see but don’t think about. In Alger’s case it was beggars and street urchins. In my case, it’s women who clean houses for a living and poor kids in rich suburbs.

I also show a justice system that looks nothing like CSI. The real justice system isn’t about crime labs and DNA exonerations. The real justice system is about “Hands up, don’t shoot” and cops who book you so they can get paid overtime for your court date.

Hollywood shows us courtroom dramas with explosive closing arguments. I show people with really bad lawyers who accept really bad plea bargains, and kids who miss their parents in prison. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: Sadly, right now I’m a little too much like my characters: I’m working on finding a job. But I’d like my next novel to be about unions. In Making Manna, unions are just part of the scenery. Life gets better after they get a union job.

But unions deserve more than that. Workers organizing to get their fair share – that deserves a book of its own. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Here are some things I didn’t learn until after the book was out. First, a smart reader described it as a “coming of age” story of both the mother and son at the same time. I think that’s exactly right. The mother was so young when he was born! She has so much to figure out, and so does he.

Second, I’ve been surprised by how popular the book is among teenaged girls. Just like the characters, they push past the scary beginning and pull it together in the end.

Lastly, here is something I didn’t figure out until I was discussing Making Manna in book groups. Really, the book is about parenting. I couldn’t have written it if I weren’t a dad. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Eric Lotke will be participating in the George Mason Fall for the Book Festival on Oct. 2.

Q&A with Maggie Messitt

Maggie Messitt is the author of The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa. She lived in South Africa from 2003 to 2011. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Creative Nonfiction and Essay Daily. She is a scholar-in-residence at Elizabethtown College's Bowers Writers House and an Ohio University John Cady Doctoral Fellow.

Q: In your book, you focus on three people. How do their lives exemplify post-apartheid South Africa?

A: Collectively, Regina, Thoko, Dankie and the community in which they live offer readers a way inside rural South Africa 10 years after the nation’s first democratic elections. 

Unlike most narratives (in literature, television, and film) set inside urban townships or colonialesque farms, The Rainy Season brings you inside a former apartheid-era homeland and the lives of three generations, three individuals tackling life in the Rainbow Nation a decade after apartheid, illustrating the hopes, dreams, and expectations (realistic and utopian) that came with this transition.

Q: How difficult was it to immerse yourself in the life of the village?

A: As a storyteller, immersion is a form of reportage that allows a community or character to reveal story, as opposed to me starting with pre-conceived ideas and seeking stories to fit inside an already established framework. And, because of this, it means just hanging out, spending time, listening, and letting people get used to you being around.

Having called South Africa home for more than two years at that point, reporting and writing from inside the village of Acornhoek (where Rooibok is located), it was much easier than if I’d parachuted into the community as a complete outsider. Let’s say, I was a partial outsider. 

But, let’s face it, immersion of any kind requires delicate and slow starts; it requires building trust; it requires being open about what you’re doing and seeking permission from the key players; and it requires genuine curiosity overlapped with good intention. 

Most importantly, in order to write what eventually became The Rainy Season, it required me to find a few people who were willing to let me inside their lives—and not in a small way—for a long time. I spent six months laying the foundation necessary for me to hang out in this way.

I think and write about immersion (from ethics to process) a lot. If you’re curious and want to learn more, you can find a recent craft essay of mine in the Summer 2015 issue of Creative Nonfiction

Q: What has happened to the village in the years since the time you’re writing about in the book?

A: Well, the Epilogue actually gives you taste of how the community has changed and the lives you follow inside The Rainy Season, but, on a very basic level, it has grown and prosperity (in a small way) is showing its face. 

That said, this could mean a family living in tin shacks in 2005 may now have a small cement block, two-room home (constructed by the family), or someone has upgraded from mud-packed buildings to brick buildings. It’s all relative. 

If anyone wants to take an aerial peek at the evolution, you can do so via Google maps—it’s kind of amazing—flipping through the years, watching more homes pop up and seeing the main street of Acornhoek get a few new buildings, but mostly fixing old buildings.

But what feels most important to say is that the stories of rural South Africa are still as universal today as they were 10 years ago—the time in which the book is set. 

It is filled with concerns and stories that American readers should also see in the world around them: poverty and the extreme gap between the rich and the poor, unemployment, the right to basic resources and a good education, the divide between the rural and urban experience, protesting against one's government, the rights and desire for a simple and safe life, and a racism that sits inside a country's bones. These are universal storylines that will likely continue for a long time.

Q: What has the response been among the people you know in South Africa to your book?

A: Having called South Africa home for eight years, there are so many people to think about when it comes to feedback on my book. Most importantly, however, I was eager to get copies of The Rainy Season into the hands of Regina, Thoko, Dankie, and others throughout Acornhoek. 

Given the postal problems—after a long postal strike and a continued backlog of parcels needing delivery—I was nervous they’d never make their way, so a friend visiting the U.S. brought them back to South Africa’s Lowveld for me and delivered them—a courier directly to Rooibok!   

For the most part, people have been excited seeing the maps of their community and reading the now decade-old stories of their lives. Regina’s granddaughter was six years old then, and now is a beautiful 16-year-old girl! Before the books arrived, she was messaging me via WhatsApp asking questions about her cameos on the page. 

Sure, I know it is difficult for some to replay difficult times in their lives as they read a book, but, overall, the response has been really positive and filled with joy that their lives and their voices have found a way to reach people far from Rooibok. 

They knew from the start that this was a journey to share their story, the good and the bad, the simple and the complex. And the women of Mapusha feel like the largest group of mothers beaming with pride.

And, well, I am sure they thought the day would never come—it has been a decade!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have several books in draft form or partially started—a frustrating state—but in 2013, there was a story that required me to put everything else to the side. I have heard people say this book chose me, but that wasn’t an experience I’d had up until then. 

I’m currently working on a hybrid of investigation and memoir (far outside my comfort zone), the story of my aunt—an actress, writer, and visual artist who went missing in 2009.  After her case went cold and the world seemed to move forward, I couldn’t in some ways.

But, instead of focusing on her absence, I was drawn to understand her story and the intersections of our lives. I wanted to learn from her and to do so, I found myself travelling the country, using her letters as my compass, knocking on strangers' doors to see inside the homes in which she once lived, finding friends who were critical to (or passers through) her life at different junctures, and tracking down her art or the spaces in which she created. 

She took me to Washington, Oregon, New York, Virginia, Illinois, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Hawaii—in and out of small arts communities across America and often, back again, to Greenwich Village, N.Y.—and through her life on and off the grid. I became a collector of artifact and quotidian details. And, ultimately, I am exploring the idea of home and family, mental health and the arts, and one’s desire to connect and feel connected.

This is ongoing and has had so many unexpected twists and turns, including my aunt’s very cold case turning warm. As I enter the new academic year, I’ve been blessed with a service-free John Cady Graduate Fellowship at Ohio University (where I am finishing my Ph.D. in Creative Nonfiction) and a Scholar-in-Residence position at Bowers Writers House at Elizabethtown College (PA). Both afford me the time to focus on writing this very personal and complex book. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 30

Sept. 30, 1928: Elie Wiesel born.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Q&A with Elizabeth Benedict

Elizabeth Benedict, photo by Daniel Lake
Elizabeth Benedict is the editor of the new anthology Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession. Her other books include the anthologies What My Mother Gave Me and Mentors, Muses and Monsters, and the novels The Practice of Deceit and Almost. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Huffington Post. She is based in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and have you always been obsessed with your own hair?

A: The response to my previous anthology, What My Mother Gave Me, was intense, and women kept saying to me, “We have to keep having these conversations.” I think they meant public conversations about issues that really matter to us – in that cases gifts of all kinds from our mothers.

I kept pitching ideas to Algonquin in this spirit, and one day they said: We have an idea for you – hair. That’s all they needed to say and I got it.

It just so happened that I’d had the idea of doing an anthology about women and their hair eight years before, but I couldn’t gather up enough writers to contribute. Well, with Algonquin’s interest, it was much easier. The rest is hair history.

Have I always been obsessed with my hair?  

Is there any woman who isn’t obsessed with her hair? I was low-to-medium obsessed when all I wanted to do was blow dry it smooth, though since I work at home and could for long periods in isolation, it was not a major obsession.

But when I started to go gray many years ago, I was pretty clear for a very long time that I wanted to color my hair. That’s something of an obsession, when you think about the time, the money, and the chemicals involved.

I’ve changed my mind recently, or it was changed for me: my hairdresser dyed my hair black, I guess by mistake, and I didn’t want to spend the next six months making it lighter, and I gave up and let it go gray. There’s a bunch of gray and still a lot of brown, and I’m grateful for that.

So now I’m obsessed with whether I really want to have gray hair. I’m trying to grow into the idea of it. By the way, my essay for Me, My Hair and I is called, “No, I Won’t Go Gray.” It might need tweaking. Or tweeting.

Q: How did you pick the contributors to this volume, and were you surprised by any of the overall themes that emerged?

A: The folks at Algonquin and I had a list of issues we wanted addressed and we came up with a list of potential writers. Some of the issues were cultural, racial and medical.

And then there were others that arose. The linguist Deborah Tannen wrote about why mothers and daughters have such complicated issues around hair. Journalist Maria Hinojosa wrote about how her hair became an issue in her marriage – when her employer wanted it to be slick and her husband wanted it to be natural and sexy.

There were a few writers I didn’t know but whose pictures told me they had some serious hair wisdom. And there were a bunch of interesting writers to whom I just said, “So what about your hair?” and out poured these stories.

What surprised me was the intensity of many of the stories they told – sibling rivalries, vast sums of money and emotion spent on hair products and hair salons, and the relationships that women have with their hairdressers.

Several in the book have been getting their hair done by the same people – I mean, teams of people – for 20 years. I was an innocent in some of these matters. I actually didn’t know that “product” is the plural of “product.”

Q: One of the issues running through several essays involves health. How did you balance the essays that touched on more serious themes with those that were perhaps lighter?

A: I wanted a mix of stories and tones, and there are two pieces in the book about women who lost their hair after chemo. We had a third writer who expressed interest, and we discussed whether that would be “too many” stories of that kind, but the editor at Algonquin felt that each would be so different it wouldn’t be an overload.

As far as the others – I didn’t know in advance whose essays would be funny and light and whose wouldn’t. And hair is such a deceptive subject that there’s a lot of angst even when the surface looks frivolous.

At first it seems like we’re just talking about what kind of haircut looks best with the shape of your face but we’re really talking about how your father didn’t want you to cut your hair when you were a teenager because he was an immigrant with a chip on his shoulder and didn’t want to give up the memories of his mother in the old country, whose hair hung all the way down her back except for the day she cut it and you left the country on an ocean liner and never saw her again.

So no wonder you’re having a nervous breakdown just trying to pick out a haircut from a magazine. This stuff goes very deep!

But, seriously, one of the lighter pieces in the book is Patricia Volk’s “Frizzball.” I guess you can tell something about her tone from the title.

Q: How did your experience editing this book compare with the experiences of editing your previous collections?

A: It might be harder to write about hair than about mothers or mentors.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now, I’m trying to figure out what to do with my hair when I go out promoting this book. When I talked in public about What My Mother Gave Me, I always brought the scarf my mother gave me that inspired the book. It was pretty easy – and I couldn’t go wrong.

This time, people are going to be scrutinizing my hair, and I still don’t know what color or style or length it’s going to be on pub date.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m still not very good at the beauty and fashion part of life. I often put on my eyeliner on the subway on my way to wherever I’m going. I have a feeling I’ll figure out what to do with my hair the morning of the first event. Or maybe that afternoon. It’s probably too late once I’m on the subway.

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

Q&A with Claire Vaye Watkins

Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of the new novel Gold Fame Citrus. She also has written the story collection Battleborn, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Granta and The Paris Review. She teaches at the University of Michigan, and is the co-director of the Mojave School, a creative writing program in rural Nevada for teenagers.

Q: How did you come up with the world you portray in Gold Fame Citrus, and how did current-day drought problems play into your writing?

A: I built the world piecemeal; different elements had their roots in historical moments. Once I figured out that I wanted to write about drought, I read a lot about the Dust Bowl, and the environmental contributing factors for that, and the displacement of those people. It got me reading about migration, and the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II.

It firmed up my ideas about what would happen to the people in the West [in the novel]. I found myself reaching back. Somebody pointed out that the book pretends to be about the future, but it’s much more so about the past.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Luz and Ray?

A: With Luz, in my research as I was reading about the California water wars of the early 20th century, in the book Cadillac Desert—it’s one of my favorite books…I reread it as I was writing the book—there is a figure in there, a baby who was adopted by the water authority as a propaganda tool: If we don’t make the aqueduct system, what will become of this baby?

I thought, What happened to the baby when she was a young adult, and [saw she was] made into a propaganda symbol? I identified with her. My dad died when I was very young, and I pretty quickly realized that [my sister and I] were human beings [but] also symbols of the friend, the brother they had lost. We looked like him. I was trying to make sense of how that made me feel.

Ray is an amalgam of friends, particularly a friend who passed away when I was in graduate school…there was room for [his type of] joy and exhilaration in a drought-stricken wasteland.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes as you went along?

A: I didn’t know it for a very long time, but at a certain point, I had traveled to Owens Valley in California, ground zero for the California water wars. I was a little stuck when I went there, and my husband and I rented a cabin. I would hike in the morning and then write. It came to me there. I started writing more explicitly about the landscape and the Sierras…it clicked for me.

Q: Do you prefer writing novels or short stories?

A: I find short stories a lot better for my emotional well-being. You can hold the whole thing in your head at one time. At some point it clicks and then it’s pretty much done.

A novel is too big to hold in your head at one time. It took me five years to write this novel. I had none of the boosts you get from finishing something. The analogy I’m using is to Super Mario Brothers, when Mario eats the mushroom and can jump very high. Writing a novel, there are no mushrooms.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: Cadillac Desert is very important to me. John McPhee’s writing…The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams…Play It As It Lays and Run River. There’s a lot of Joan Didion in the book. In a way, it’s a loving tribute to Joan Didion. Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Nothing. I’m happily reading and being, letting the well replenish.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would add that I expect the book to be wrongly categorized as post-apocalyptic, and I want to go on record as describing it as pre-apocalyptic!...

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lia Purpura

Lia Purpura is the author of the new poetry collection It Shouldn't Have Been Beautiful. She also has written the poetry collections The Brighter the Veil, Stone Sky Lifting, and King Baby, as well as three essay collections. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Paris Review. She is writer in residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and she lives in Baltimore.

Q: Why did you choose "It Shouldn't Have Been Beautiful"--a line from one of the poems in the book--as the book's title, and what does it signify for you?

A: In both my poems and essays, I’m interested in seeing what there is to notice that may have gone unnoticed, or hasn’t traditionally merited attention.

I’m interested in paying attention to the aesthetic, moral, civic, spiritual questions and demands that are called up in the act of looking – an act which is almost always full of complexities, contradictions, surprise, and mystery. I’m interested in uncategorizable feelings or moments – moments that I’m convinced are inklings of bigger questions.

What I’d call “beautiful” is often a little off center. The objects or instances or beings that elicit that particular response, beautiful, are so capacious … sometimes, too, they’re attached to systems that, in their perfect workings, are themselves beautiful, but under-sung.

This sense of surprise, this off-centeredness, or drive to see a thing slant felt like a good lens for the book’s intentions. Also, to give proper credit here, my husband first suggested it as a possibility, among others, and, truth be known, he’s a master titler. I owe him big time for a lot of good titles over the years.

Q: These poems have been described as "compact." What do you think of that description, and why do you write in the form you've chosen?

A: Well, the compact is often pretty enormous in what it contains. Sure, “brief” things can be cut-short things, tossed-off things, things capped or lopped  -- or can reveal a skittishness about the supposedly short attention span of the contemporary human.

I’d like to think about brevity as a depth experience rather than one that responds to the inability to pay attention. I liked working with a form that allowed for a lot of space around it. I liked the combination of density (layered thought, heightened moment, precise incident, lasered attention) and spaciousness.

And I liked, too, the way a focused thought can ring out, behave like a saying or proverb or riddle, and engage the air around it in its blooming.

Q: In addition to poetry, you also write essays. Do you have a preference?

A: It’s not so much a preference as a sense of great fortune to have these two very different musculatures to work with. I can work long or short, depending on the feel of the day.

This is not to say that the poems are in any way easier or take less time – just that the physical sensation, the sense of time and space is very different and I like, need, am attracted to both.

Sometimes, actually, sort of often now, the essays behave in highly lyrical ways and move about the way poems traditionally do, by leaps of thought and image, and the poems behave like small essays, organizing and presenting a thought or concept. The crossover, the freedom of that, is exciting.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: Always a question that draws a blank! I think what’s often meant is: which authors are you somehow aware of as influencing your work. The question may suggest, too, that writers can trace the origins of certain gestures or subjects back to a beloved author, or early influence – and articulate a sense of an orderly heritage.

I’m not being cagey here, or resisting talking about my beloveds for the sake of appearing to be spontaneously born of a god’s forehead, or in order to come off as untouched and pure.

A whole range of writers have been important to me – by introducing angles of vision, by offering challenges to the soul, by stirring generative envy, by making me feel very very small and thus forcing growth – so, to name just a very few: James Baldwin, Dickinson, Neruda, Whitman, and recently, say, Claudia Rankine, Mary Ruefle, Larry Levis, Elizabeth Kolbert, Ann Pancake, Terrance Hayes, David Foster Wallace, and early on, a whole host of post-WWII Eastern European poets -- and then, writer friends, of course, whose own astonishing work I’ve seen through many stages, whose ethics and aesthetics make me want to write better every day.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m mostly working on easing It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful into the world, and that means doing an awful lot of traveling and readings.

Writing-wise, I’ve got a few essays under construction (a new one, “Scream, or Neverminding,” will be out soon in The Georgia Review) and other than that, I’m trying to keep in more of less daily touch with very new, small sparks, trying to hang out with the mysteriously hovering stuff and get some of it down and get a sense of what’s coming next. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 29

Sept. 29, 1810: Elizabeth Gaskell born.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Q&A with Sam Horn

Sam Horn is the author of the new book Got Your Attention?: How to Create Intrigue and Connect with Anyone. Her other books include POP! and Take the Bully by the Horns. A messaging strategist, she is the president of Intrigue Agency. Her work has been featured in a wide variety of places, including The Tonight Show and The Washington Post. She is based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: How did you come up with your INTRIGUE concept, and what do you see as its most important ideas?

A: I had the privilege of helping to run the Maui Writers Conference—what Cannes is to the film world, we were to the publishing world--and the first day, a woman walked out of her pitch, tears in her eyes, and said she just saw her dream go down the drain. An editor had said, “Tell me in 60 seconds why [your book] is interesting,” and her mind went blank. She knew she had lost her opportunity.

I realized that talent and hard work matter, but if we can’t quickly get our point across, we’ll never succeed at the level we deserve.

How can we get it across? In my research, I found out about “INFObesity”[people trying to consume too much information] and about a Harvard study [revealing that] goldfish have longer attention spans than we do. So I understood that it’s not just about getting it across clearly, but about getting it across quickly, so impatient people with the attention span of a goldfish can [follow it].

The opposite of INFObesity is INTRIGUE. That’s how I came up with the concept. I turned it into an acronym—that gives it an organizational framework.

Q: And what are a couple of things you find the most important about the concept of INTRIGUE?

A: If I were to pick one concept, E.M. Forster was asked the purpose of life, and he said, “Only connect.” We want to connect with people, but we often don’t. No one teaches us how to connect.
The goal of the book, and of INTRIGUE, is that it’s a two-way process. We connect about getting attention—people are busy, and choose to give us their time—and it’s also about giving attention: being intriguing and intrigued. When we do both is when we connect.

Q: You write that “if you can’t get people’s attention, you’ll never get their connection.” Has it become more difficult in recent years to get attention?

A: One hundred percent. That’s not just my opinion; there are lots of statistics and research. It’s become more difficult. There are 140-character tweets, there’s Snapchat. If you’re long, you’re gone.

Q: So what are some ways to get attention now, vs. how it might have been 25 or 50 years ago?

A: You understand that the clock starts ticking the second we start talking...If we’re at work, and you say, “I need to talk to you about something,” people are in a state of anxiety [about how long the conversation will take]. You could say, “I know you’re busy, may I have two minutes of your time.” If we don’t take responsibility for people’s time anxiety, even if it’s important, we’re going to lose them.

Q: One of the tactics you discuss is the use of humor. How can humor help in a variety of situations?

A: It’s called comic relief for a reason. When things are tense, when we’re in the midst of a conflict, or a serious situation, the role of humor is a relief. We can get along.

Often people say, “But I’m not funny.” We all have funny things happen around us. We can keep our antenna up for what makes us laugh.

I was in the San Francisco airport, and here comes a very tall man. …When he came closer, I saw that his T-shirt said, “No, I’m not a basketball player.” On the back, it said, “Are you a jockey?”

I laughed, and wanted to connect with him. He told me he grew a foot between the ages of about 13 and 16, and everyone was making smart-aleck remarks….[In response] he has a whole closet of shirts [that he wears, with similar messages].

We can be frustrated by something, but coming up with comebacks if people say something that might offend us, thinking about the power of using humor, you’re turning a person from an adversary into an ally.

Q: Another strategy in the book is the use of real-life examples—something you just did in the last answer! What are the benefits of this approach?

A: If you want to connect, replace an explanation with an example. When you hear “For example,” you perk up. You’re in the real world now.

I was a pitch coach for Dolphin Tank, a kinder version of Shark Tank. A woman was trying to get funding for a hook in a car to put your purse on. I thought, “Really?”

She was smart. She hauled in a full-size car seat to the front of the room, and put her hands on an imaginary wheel, and said, “Have you ever been driving along…and your purse falls off [the seat]”? A man stood up and said, “I’m taking two!”—one for his wife and one for his daughter. She went from “Really?” to “I’m taking two!” in 30 seconds…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve always been drawn to water. I’m setting off on a year-long adventure, visiting [places including] the Florida Keys, Niagara Falls…and writing about it: water as a metaphor for what really matters. I will continue to speak and consult, but I’ll do a lot more writing.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m hoping the book practices what it preaches. People may think, “I’m too busy,” or “I don’t pitch.” One reason people endorsed it is that all the chapters are under 10 pages. You can dip in, and use it in your personal life or your professional life—and transform the results.

It’s not just hearing, “I landed a $10 million deal,” or, “I landed a book deal.” It’s equally moving to me when someone says, “I can finally explain to my 8-year-old son what I do so he can understand.”

I hope [readers] find it will change the way they communicate with people, and help them connect.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb