Friday, September 30, 2022

Q&A with Cheryl J. Fish




Cheryl J. Fish is the author of the new novel Off the Yoga Mat. Her other books include the poetry collection Crater & Tower, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Iron Horse Literary Review and CheapPop. She teaches at BMCC/City University of New York.


Q: What inspired you to write Off the Yoga Mat, and how did you create your characters Nate, Nora, and Lulu?


A: The characters appeared to me as characters often do. They are struggling but full of passion.


Nate’s a perennial graduate student with a hostile adviser. Nora wants to have a baby with Nate, but he isn’t ready. She gets the chance to work in Finland and seizes it. Lulu is a successful yoga teacher, beautiful and spiritual, but she’s having nightmares of someone who harmed her in childhood.


The concept of thresholds appealed to me. What prompts a person to move past setbacks, inching closer to their true self? Age 40 now seems young to me, but it’s a time we realize we won’t live forever. My characters face that crossroad. How do they find healthy relationships and work where they can thrive? What does it take to heal?


I was inspired to draw on humor, grit, and the irony of repeating patterns in our lives. I wrote about how Nate, Nora, and Lulu face their challenges in ways that were often uncomfortable yet liberating.


How could these characters interact with and impact each other, even as each one takes a separate physical, geographical, and emotional journey? Those tensions kept me coming back to the story.


Q: You tell the story from all three characters’ alternating perspectives--did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character before turning to the others?


A: I worked on all three in various sections, not necessarily in order. I kept a notebook with backstory, ideas, and preferences for each character, small details that helped me distinguish their beliefs. Many times, I rewrote and switched the sequences and chapters around.


My fiction seems to be shaped by more than one narrative voice at a time. Juxtaposing characters reveals who they are in relation to the others and deepens my ability to show contrast and diversity.


Q: Why did you choose to set the book in 1999?


A: I set the book in 1999 mainly because I didn’t want to deal with the ways in which 9/11 impacted these characters. It has been a significant force in many of our lives. I live near ground zero of the attack on the World Trade Center. My novel starts and ends in New York City’s East Village neighborhood.


I had PTSD from 9/11; I have published a book of poems that deals with my displaced reactions to 9/11 by using another disaster, the volcanic eruption in 1980 of Mount St. Helens to reflect on environmental and societal impacts.

For Off the Yoga Mat, I chose the proximity of a new millennium and the anxiety it provoked along with the Y2K threat of crashing computers, technology disrupted, and the ways we envisioned time keeping. In retrospect, 1999 feels like a gentler period than what has followed. As we age our sense of time changes too and that is a theme that runs through the novel.


It just so happens 1999 was also the year the Columbine High School shooting took place. When Nora is in Finland, she hears the news and has a strong reaction to what’s happening in her country. Of course, Prince’s famous rock n’ roll riff on 1999 is also reflected upon near the ending of the book.


Q: The author Lee Upton said of the book, “Fish’s deep knowledge of yoga and of the psychological, geographical, and sensory terrain renders this ambitious novel absorbing and impressive.” What do you think of that description, and what impact has yoga had on your own life?


A: Lee Upton’s generous description of the novel pleases me a lot. I hoped to reveal the ways in which psychological, geographical, and sensory experience are related and ever shifting through the characters’ journeys, so I am grateful that Lee came away with that impression.


Humor is also essential in my writing. It’s a pleasure to write and read something that makes us smile (humor, like taste in music and books, is subjective).


I am a sporadic practitioner of yoga. My mom watched a TV yogi and practiced asanas on the living room floor we found amusing; my sister is now a yoga teacher.


The array of easy poses I do helps me with flexibility and balance, and in Off the Yoga Mat, I illustrate the humor and competition to be found in some Western practices of yoga, while also respecting and reflecting on yoga’s roots in India, Hinduism, and Sanskrit.


My character Lulu Betancourt, a long-time hatha yoga teacher, mixes asanas, pranayama, and mantra chanting in her classes and she finds solace through them in her own practice. Over the years I have had inspiring yoga teachers in various places and wish I was more disciplined to stick with it. Like Nate, I laugh at some metaphors teachers come up with when giving instructions.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a number of projects. I have had two recent writing residencies in Iceland, and have been inspired by the geology there, as well as by Norse mythology and the isolation and quirkiness.


I am working on fiction that features young international workers who come to Iceland to work in the service and tourism industries and get caught up in various intrigue. I also am working on series of poems about Iceland.


In addition, I have several nonfiction essays I am working on, and a new collaborative project with a Swedish Sami friend of mine. I also write flash fiction and am considering a flash novel or novella, and I am revising several short stories.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I want to thank you for featuring me on your blog, and I’d like to let you readers know I am available for book club visits, readings, book signings and events, possibly live or virtual.


My website is where you can find information on events, order the book, and check out my other activities.


 I’d like to mention some upcoming events (more to come!)


Free Virtual Reading at the Peter White Public Library in Marquette, Michigan on Wed., Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. EDT


Panel discussion with Cheryl J. Fish, DeMisty Bellinger, and Celia Jeffries, “Mighty/Small: Publishing a Debut Novel with Independent, University, and Hybrid Presses,” Women’s National Book Association virtual event on Wed., Sept. 21, 2022 at 7 p.m. EDT.


I will be appearing at the Livingston Press booth at the Brooklyn Book Festival all day on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022 signing copies of Off the Yoga Mat. Come on by!


Virtual reading and conversation between Cheryl J. Fish and Christy Alexander Hallberg, sponsored by Malaprops Bookstore, Ashville, NC, 6 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 27, EDT. Virtual events require you to RSVP from the event page on the Malaprops calendar. 


Thanks again. I’d like to hear from readers—get in touch.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment