“I know that reality and truth are not always the same thing”: An Interview with Christos Ikonomou

Christos Ikonomou
Christos Ikonomou is the author of three short story collections, including Something Will Happen, You’ll See (Archipelago Books, trans. Karen Emmerich, 2016), for which he won the National Short Story Prize. Something Will Happen, You’ll See, a devastating and sparingly written collection of stories about the Greek crisis in working class neighborhoods in Athens, is his first book to appear in English. Ikonomou was born in and is based in Athens, and has just returned from a two week tour in the US with Archipelago Books.

Maria Eliades: Your writing is very sparse. Does the writing start out that way or do you pare it down? I read in one interview, for instance, that you rewrote “Mao” 30 times.

Christos Ikonomou: Yes, I’m doing writing all the time. I don’t write. I rewrite. But yes, most of the times, the first drafts are a little bit larger, bigger, wider, and then I’m starting to trim them down. I’m writing painfully, slowly, so I need a lot of time to get where I think I want the writing. It’s a very slow process for me. I’m writing very slowly.

Most of the stories’ first drafts were somewhat more expanded, and then as I’ve said, I don’t like using many words. I’m trying to be as brief as I can be in order to convey the spirit of the story so to say.Continue Reading

“I really wanted to just drive and talk with someone”: An Interview with John Gallaher

pexels-photoJohn Gallaher’s book-length poem In A Landscape has the feel of a long, wide-ranging conversation with an old friend. It’s like one of those cross-country car ride conversations when there’s time to talk about anything and everything: the tiny details of day-to-day living and the meaning-of-life questions that keep us up at night. His other books include Ghost / Landscape, with Kristina Marie Darling; Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, with G.C. Waldrep; Map of the Folded World; and The Little Book of Guesses. He lives in Maryville, Missouri, where he teaches at Northwest Missouri State University and co-edits The Laurel Review.

Matthew Thorburn: How did In A Landscape start? Did you set out with the idea of a book-length poem, or did that emerge as you were writing?

John Gallaher: It was all by accident. I started writing one day in October 2009 with no plan, nothing at all on my mind. I had just finished a collaborative manuscript with G.C. Waldrep, and I was in some way, I think, tired of “artistic thoughts.” That’s not a great way to say it. It wasn’t even a full thought. So I just started writing and then, after a while, it kind of fell into a form, so I stuck with it. Continue Reading

Interview with Grace Shuyi Liew, author of Prop



Grace Shuyi Liew is the author of the chapbook Prop (Ahsahta Press, 2016) and Book of Interludes (Anomalous Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in cream city review, PANK, Bone Bouquet, West Branch, and other journals. She is a contributing editor for Waxwing and an alum of Aspen Summer Words, Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, and the Watering Hole.

Grace is from Malaysia and now resides in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she works as a teaching artist while completing her MFA at Louisiana State University. I interviewed her on the release of Prop, which was selected by Kerri Webster as winner of the 2015 Ahsahta Chapbook Award.

How did the sequence and its pauses and divisions come about?

I was thinking about western canons and the lineages they pass down without question. Then the set of poems slowly sprawled into a kind of alternative origin story—a bit expansive, a bit mythical, a bit hysterical about banishment. So connectivity quickly became important. The two sisters that share a tail move from undersea to dry caves to suburbia to nationlessness. Continuity and discontinuity became important. And: movement versus stasis, resignation versus vengeance, longing versus rejecting.

At the time I was also a bit obsessed with sentences. I was paying all my attention to sentences-as-lines, and how they can be unyielding and demanding but also sometimes, paradoxically, they open up a habitable place. Then at one point I started to mistrust them and forced myself to resist this habitable place. So a lot of the pauses and divisions were me trying to write against this sentence-ness. Some poems are choppier, enjambed, ruptured, contingent on immediate focus rather than cumulative attention. Continue Reading

As the Train of Fiction Rolls On, the Space Between

Photo of Rene Magritte by Duane Michals (1965)

Last year, I interviewed Pam Houston about her novel Contents May Have Shifted and the fine line between fact and fiction. “Well, I don’t think of it as a fine line,” she wrote to me in an email.

My task as a writer has always been to take the scenes, the concrete physical objects, the moments, and the sensory details the real world offers, and shape them into story. The shaping is an all-important part of it, and that is why fiction is my true love, but not fiction as in something that didn’t really happen, just fiction as in something for which the shaping is as least as important as the representational qualities. The things that happened to Pam in Contents May Have Shifted are also things that happened to me—and yet, we know language, for all our trying, won’t stand still, won’t mean absolutely.

Words fail us, again and again. Language won’t mean absolutely.Continue Reading

“Ghosts Usually Accompany Me through My Poems”: An Interview with Diane Seuss

A_big_tip_in_Galveston2Words just seem to have more possibilities in the poems of Diane Seuss. They become more flexible, more magnetic, attracting and accumulating meaning and music in a speedy rush to surprise, a hard-won clarity about what it’s like to be here, be human. Diane is the author of three books of poetry: Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf Press, 2015); Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), recipient of the Juniper Prize for Poetry; and It Blows You Hollow (New Issues Press, 1998). A native of Michigan, she serves as writer-in-residence at Kalamazoo College.

Matthew Thorburn: How did Four-Legged Girl come together? Would you talk about your process—and was it different from your experience with your previous books?

Diane Seuss: Each collection has been the result of its own unique process. Four-Legged Girl came together after writing poems over a few years that reflected my obsession with the nature of desire. When I looked at those poems I saw a kind of trajectory that was not necessarily chronological but did move through a process of being captivated by desire (a true captive), rescinding desire, and finally coming to a new kind of desire that was not about romance but, frankly, about poetry. In my world, poetry is a placeholder for a larger spiritual and intellectual process. When I wrote the title poem, the image of the girl with four legs was the frame I needed for the freakdom of the whole manuscript. She is the purple creature who rose out of the whole shebang. The big poem in the book’s center, “I can’t listen to music, especially ‘Lush Life,’” became the drain around which the rest of the poems swirled, and in fact the image of the hub could be considered the collection’s structural metaphor.Continue Reading

Compensation and Nuance: An Interview with Michele Hutchison

2016-03-23 14.52.51Michele Hutchison is an editor, blogger, and translator of both Dutch and French living in Amsterdam. For this interview, we’re talking about one of her latest projects, La Superba, a novel written by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer recently published in the US by Deep Vellum. Pfeijffer is known in the Netherlands for both his prose and his poetry, and this is the second novel of his that Hutchison has translated. La Superba is a semi-autobiographical account of a Dutch poet living in Genoa. The novel has won multiple awards, including the Libris Literatuur Prijs and the Tzum Prize for most beautiful sentence.

Graham Oliver: Tell me about that Tzum Prize. Did that add some weight when translating? Did you seek out those sentences first, or did you try to keep yourself unaware of which sentences they were?

Michele Hutchison: Yes, I did worry about those sentences and to be honest, I think other sentences in the translation worked out better. So if you were going to look for a Tzum contender in the English edition, I think you’d choose something different. Translation’s always like that—you try to pick up elsewhere what you’ve dropped along the way. To be more explicit, I’m talking about compensation, often discussed in translation circles. I try to compensate by imitating the author’s style where possible. For example, if he’s used alliteration in a passage, I might not be able to replicate it at that exact same point, but I hope to get it in somewhere.

GO: In the book, the protagonist mentions how he’s frequently approached when in his home country of the Netherlands when he’s out in public by people who recognize him. Do you have a sense of how true this is? While we have a few iconic writers in America, I can’t imagine there are many who worry about being recognized every time they go out in public.

MH: Remember that the protagonist is an unreliable narrator who lives in a fantasy world, so everything should be taken with a pinch of salt. That said, it’s actually true that Ilja is a very famous figure in the Netherlands and does frequently get approached in public. He’s a large, striking-looking man so it’s easy to recognize him. Actually, he was primarily known as a poet before he broke out as a novelist with La Superba which won a major prize. It’s hard to imagine, but poetry is a major art form in the Netherlands. Poets are famous here and poetry is well-respected. Ilja has won a lot of prizes for his poetry including a recent grand slam of three awards in a row for his latest collection, Idylls. Add to that a writer who has an amazing stage presence and is a great performer and yes, you’ve got a national celebrity.

I’d like to add that in real life he is quite modest. I’m concerned about Americans not getting the dry Dutch sense of humour in the book. The Dutch are quite self-deprecating and don’t mind having a laugh at their own expense.Continue Reading

Look Deep: An Interview with Ranbir Singh Sidhu


Ranbir Singh Sidhu writes stories, essays and plays, takes photographs, and dreams of making movies. He was born in London and grew up in California. His first novel is Deep Singh Blue (Unnamed Press), which the novelist Alex Shakar calls “a work of ferocious bravery, intelligence, and art.” He is the author of the story collection Good Indian Girls (Soft Skull) and is a winner of a Pushcart Prize and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. His stories appear in Conjunctions, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, and many other journals.

Titi Nguyen: How did this book come about?

Ranbir Singh Sidhu: I was working in Sri Lanka staying with a friend when we discovered the maid had been using the house secretly as a brothel when we were away—and not only that, but she was also using it as a love nest for a very serious Sri Lankan VIP. Things got a lot stranger very quickly, with death threats and all sorts of threats flying around—and as my friend was out of the country at the time I found myself in the firing line of a lot of screaming.

In the middle of all this, to distract myself, I wrote a comic story about a Sikh kid who announces one night at dinner that he’s decided to become a Jew. I drew on my own family for the dynamic—it was the first time I’d ever done anything like that and I enjoyed the sense of liberation it offered, to take people I knew, a world I knew, and transform it yet keep the heart of who those people were. I’d always been suspicious about autobiographical fiction, but this one foray offered a conversation with my childhood that I’d never had before. The story never went anywhere, but the character of Deep was born then, and it was out of getting to know him that the novel emerged.Continue Reading

Origin Stories: Amy Gustine’s YOU SHOULD PITY US INSTEAD

You Should Pity Us Open

Amy Gustine’s debut collection, You Should Pity Us Instead, is an unsentimental exploration of people in distress. I recently asked Gustine where she drew her inspiration. She told me that stories come alive for her when she opposes two equal forces, which explains why each one feels like such an exquisitely engineered work of tension. Gustine gave me more details about the origin of three of them.

1. “All the Sons of Cain”

“All the Sons of Cain” is about the mother of a kidnapped Israeli soldier. Here’s how Gustine came up with the concept:

This story began with something I read about the national debate Israel was having about whether or not to exchange Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was being held in Gaza by Hamas. I tend to get interested in the effaced people behind news stories: the children adopted into unfamiliar cultures when their whole family dies after contact with loggers, the men behind those ads on Craiglist for naked cleaners. I became interested first in Shalit’s mother, and then the invented character of R’s mother, a soldier who is kidnapped after a prisoner exchange brings Shalit home. R’s mother sneaks into Gaza to try to free her son and befriends a Palestinian boy and his mother.

The collision of the mothers, Gustine went on to explain, broke open the story.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Sarabande Books


Founded in 1994 in Louisville, Kentucky by Sarah Gorham and Jeffrey Skinner, Sarabande Books began with a mission to publish and distribute with “diligence and integrity” books of poetry, short fiction and essays. Their first two titles appeared 20 years ago as winners of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry (this year’s reading period for both prizes opens March 15). Now Sarabande publishes 10 to 12 titles per year and has added two regional prizes—The Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature and The Flo Gault Poetry Prize for Kentucky Undergraduates.

Even the shortest selection of Sarabande’s most recent titles shows the press’s impact on contemporary American literature. Kerry Howley’s collection of essays on the lives of two cage fighters, Thrown, made at least a half-dozen “best of” lists in 2014, Caitlin Horrocks‘ collection of stories This Is Not Your City earned a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers distinction in 2011, and Amy Gustine’s collected stories You Should Pity Us Instead with a hot-off-the-press February 2016 publication date is already piling up a year’s worth of accolades.

Adding to their award-winning offerings in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, Sarabande has published a varied and valuable collection of anthologies as well as their Quarternote Chapbooks, a remarkable series of titles from contemporary American poets including Stephen Dunn, Louise Glück, C.K. Williams, and James Tate.

Sarabande’s careful expansion over the years extends beyond book publication. The press produces the online resource Sarabande in Education, which provides reading guides and interactive material for educators, runs a writers’ residency program at Bernheim Arboretum and Research forest near Louisville, and operates Sarabande Writing Labs, which delivers arts education to underserved communities in Kentucky.

For Ploughshares, Editor-in-Chief Sarah Gorham shares her insights on Sarabande’s place in independent publishing today, and gives readers and writers a preview of where the press is headed in the immediate future.

KF: Sarabande’s first two titles were Lee Martin’s short fiction collection The Least You Need to Know, and Jane Mead’s poetry collection The Lord and the General Din of the World. Martin has since gone on to publish several books of fiction and nonfiction and been nominated for the Pulitzer; Mead has collected Guggenheim, Lannan, and Whiting accolades. That’s quite a one-two punch for your first two authors, and your track record of plucking talent from the slushpile and prize entrants continues to be strong. What distinguishes a Sarabande author? How exciting is it to see your writers rise in respect and recognition?
Continue Reading

Bridging the “Dreadful Gulf”: An Interview with Sarah Death

sarah death copySarah Death is a translator and scholar of Swedish literature. She edited the Swedish Book Review from 2003-2015 and lives in Kent, England. She has twice won the Bernard Shaw Translation Prize: in 2003 for The Angel House by Kerstin Ekman and in 2006 for Snow by Ellen Mattson. Her most recent novel translation is Willful Disregard, by Lena Andersson, which was published in the US by Other Press at the beginning of February. While Andersson is known primarily as a cultural and political critic, Willful Disregard is “a novel about love,” and tells the story of Ester, a young female academic who falls obsessively in love with an older, pretentious artist. It won the 2013 August Prize, the highest literary award in Sweden.

Graham Oliver: I love that this book starts with a brief treatise on language always being an approximation of reality, on there being a “dreadful gulf between thought and words.” Later in the book, we’re led as readers to question the usefulness of this belief, but how do you think this idea plays into the act of translation?

Sarah Death: Expectations certainly should not be lower; any self-respecting translator will be striving to bridge the gulf, if it exists. My focus was on the “dreadful gulf” between the way Ester presents things to herself and what the reader can increasingly see to be the blunt truth of the matter, namely that Hugo, the object of her affections, is incorrigibly self-centred and cares nothing for her except when he can use her to advantage. I was constantly aware of the need to encompass both aspects whilst still creating a readable flow.

GO: Andersson’s other works sound much more overtly political than this one. Was that a surprise to you when you read it? I also think the fact that she is known for being “one of the country’s sharpest contemporary analysts” is fascinating given this book seems to be a criticism of being overly critical. Should we read this as the author being slightly self-deprecating?

SD: You are right that much of Andersson’s previous work – and indeed much that has come since – is quite overtly political. Willful Disregard, her ‘novel about love’ (to borrow the sub-title) was thus a rather unexpected departure, though I am sure she would argue that the personal, too, is political. Andersson is a very funny writer and there is undoubtedly a hint of self-deprecation, although Lena and Ester are not the same person. The author reserves her sharpest scalpel for dissecting the power play between the sexes and examining the all-devouring, totalitarian nature of the emotion we call love – or ‘the malarial love itch’, as she puts it in the novel.Continue Reading