Origin Story: Tony Tulathimutte’s PRIVATE CITIZENS

 

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Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel, Private Citizens, charts the spectacular floundering of four recent college graduates. His eye is so sharp, his characters so recognizable, and his truth so pitiless that I sometimes had to close the book, as if he might read my soul through its pages. This is one of the most provocatively intelligent novels I’ve ever read.

I met Tony at a bar and asked him how the book came about.

David Busis: You said that before you started this book, you were writing pious, well-crafted stories. Did this book come out of a contrarian impulse, or did it come out of a willingness to take a risk that you weren’t willing to take before?

Tony Tulathimutte: Pure desperation. I hadn’t written almost anything for two years. I’d written a story collection that on some deep level I was too ashamed of to even try publishing, because of this issue of piety. The novel I’d been working on ended up dehydrating into a novella. Process-wise it was an important bridge between the older stuff and this, writing at greater length, but stylistically it was still like the old stuff. Once you’ve been writing a few years, it’s hard to let go of whatever little accolade or attention you’ve managed to get and start over with a new approach. But you have to, if you don’t want to stagnate.

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An Interview with writer Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Yu-Mei Balasingamchow is a fiction and nonfiction writer from Singapore. Her stories appear in the anthologies From the Belly of the Cat (2009) and Let’s Tell This Story Properly: Commonwealth Short Story Prize Anthology (2015), as well as in the journal Mänoa. Her nonfiction work includes Singapore: A Biography (2009), co-authored with Mark Ravinder Frost and commissioned by the National Museum of Singapore. Balasingamchow participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP), a ten-week annual residency for writers from around the world, in fall 2015.

Xin Tian: Tell me about the residency program.

Yu-Mei Balasingamchow: IWP is very contained—it’s ten weeks, you live on campus together, then everyone goes home. You’re always running into each other in the same place. These experiences help because they’re small and short—you go there, it’s really stimulating, take it or leave it, and then it will never happen again.

I could hear myself think so clearly. You start giving yourself reasons to say yes, rather than no, about what you want to write. Being taken out of the place where you usually write and being placed in this foreign environment is quite idyllic. It doesn’t ask very much of you except just to be there.

IWP asks that you do one public reading at the Shambaugh House or at the Prairie Lights bookstore in town. Some residents read from their native languages, or from newly translated pieces that they worked on with students at the university’s MFA in Literary Translation.

We were also involved in an undergraduate class, International Literature Today (taught by Christopher Merrill and Natasa Durovicova), where students read and ask questions about residents’ work. A few of us spoke to high school creative writing students at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and at a class at Bard Early College New Orleans, where there are college prep classes for public high school students. In DC, I visited an AP Lit high school class through a PEN American Center school outreach program.Continue Reading

“Different Paths Up the Same Mountain”: An Interview with Adele Kenny

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Adele Kenny’s poems speak from the head and the heart, giving thoughtful scrutiny to the moments that move us—whether to wonder or to grief. She is the author of more than 20 books of poetry and nonfiction, including What Matters, winner of the 2012 International Book Award for Poetry, and A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing At All, a collection of prose poems. She is also a strong advocate for poets, most notably in her work as poetry editor for Tiferet Journal and founding director of the Carriage House Poetry Series in Fanwood, New Jersey. We caught up at the start of the new year to talk about writing, metaphorical mountains, and what poetry and dancing have in common.

Matthew Thorburn: What draws you to prose poems? Does writing in prose present unique opportunities for you as a poet?

Adele Kenny: It may be that my initial romance with prose poems derived from past experience as a ballet dancer and dance teacher. I’ve always been aware that poetry uses space just as dance does, so I was very conscious of the prose poem’s use of space and how different it is from other forms of poetry.  Then there’s the intriguing name—prose poetry. How can poetry be prose, and how can prose be poetry? I don’t believe that one can be the other, but a combination of the two does form its own genre, a certain duality that I find exciting. Prose poems aren’t bound or defined by lines (they look like paragraphs, and are box-like in appearance), but they still employ the techniques and tricks of poetry.

Importantly, prose poems are strongly rooted in imagery and metaphor. Imagery is the engine that powers my poems and, for me, it’s even more imperative in prose poems. Prose poems also contain complete sentences and deliberate fragments; they speak the language of dreams, and give a nod to the surreal. They often include strange layers of language in which what appears to be abstraction really isn’t.

I find it a particular challenge writing prose poems, a challenge that forces me to stay inside the “box” but still create work that’s both haunting and lucent—work that contains subjects imbedded with sub-subjects but presents an integrated whole of language, meaning, and form. Continue Reading

“Sufficient Ambiguity”: An Interview with Deborah Smith

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Deborah Smith is a translator of Korean and the founder of a new non-profit London-based publisher, Tilted Axis Press. Recently, she has worked with Korean author Han Kang to bring her novel The Vegetarian to an English-reading audience. The book is a collection of three linked novellas about a woman who gives up eating meat after a series of violent, gory dreams and the disruption this decision creates in her life. The Vegetarian will be published in the US by Hogarth on February 2, and Smith’s next collaboration with Han Kang, Human Acts, is slated for publication by Crown in 2017.

Graham Oliver: In any book, there’s a certain amount of filling in the blanks involved with reading. This is especially true for The Vegetarian, a book in which we very rarely see into the head of the main character. While I was reading, I found myself wondering if my assumptions about the characters’ motivations—cultural versus individual personality—were correct or might be different from a Korean reader. Was this a concern with The Vegetarian? How does the act of translating not just language, but also culture, play into your work?

Deborah Smith: Yes, The Vegetarian is set in South Korea, and the characters are Korean, but aside from that I wouldn’t say that it’s an especially Korean book. One of the reasons I chose to translate The Vegetarian in the first place was because its “cultural content” is incidental, though naturally the semi-arranged marriages, extreme deference to hierarchy, and meat-eating as a badge of both male virility and economic health, will loom larger for readers of the translation than it did for South Koreans. Besides, even for a country as ethnically homogenous and fond of conformity as South Korea, “culture” isn’t some kind of singular monolith.

To me The Vegetarian always seemed like a contemporary re-telling of a myth, except one where that original myth is absent as there’s no Korean or even East Asian tradition of metamorphosis comparable to that of the Greeks. That’s because Han’s really writing about archetypes: Art, and Desire, and Violence. The specifically Korean social structures inflect how these play out, but those situational tweaks aren’t the main focus.Continue Reading

It Never Rains on National Day: an interview with writer Jeremy Tiang

Jeremy Tiang's It Never Rains on National Day

Jeremy Tiang is a fiction writer, playwright, and translator from Singapore. His short story collection It Never Rains on National Day was published by Epigram Books in 2015, and is available at Epigram Books’ website. He lives in Brooklyn and was recently featured in the Singapore Writers Festival. We caught up in an email interview.

Xin Tian: What are some of your beliefs when it comes to craft?

Jeremy: I don’t have any beliefs, really. I’m tempted to just go “what even is craft lol”—or less flippantly, I think each story requires a set of tools to tell it, and you pick the tools out of a big bag that, sure, we could call “craft.” But I’m not going to be ideological about it.

X: What is your literal writing environment like, and do you have any working habits or rituals?

JT: I have a tiny room in my flat that is just mine—I think it was originally intended to be a walk-in closet, but I have filled it with white furniture and books. My desk faces the window. I go in there every morning and stay there till evening, apart from toilet breaks and forays for food. What I work on depends on what’s occupying my mind most at the moment and/or deadlines. I generally have several things on the go at once, and when I get stuck on something I move on to something else.Continue Reading

“Unexpected Brightness”: An Interview with Elaine Sexton

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Elaine Sexton’s poems are active, nimble, curious—they often seem to be trying to solve a problem or puzzle out the right words to describe our too-often wordless emotions. No wonder her first book is called Sleuth. Elaine’s other books include Causeway and, most recently, Prospect/Refuge. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University, serves as visual arts editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. In the midst of the pre-holiday rush, we took a few minutes to talk about writing poems, naming books, and finding the creative connections between writing poems and making art.

Matthew Thorburn: Your new book’s title, Prospect/Refuge, seems to point in two directions from either side of its slash mark. How did you choose this title?

Elaine Sexton: Originally I had an idea the book would be divided into three sections, three voices, that of the “singer,” “barker,” and “siren,” which together were: soft, hard, and alarming. While fine-tuning these poems, work I believed to be essentially complete, an artist I met at a residency asked me if I’d ever heard of “prospect-refuge theory.” The minute I heard the two words together something clicked. I came to see that the act of writing a poem and making the book possessed an opening up, a kind of opportunity (prospect) to discover something, as well as a refuge, some kind of containment.

I appropriated the title from Jay Appleton’s theory, which he applies to an “experience of landscape,” not poetry. But it easily applies to both. I replaced the hyphen with the / mark between the two words to show them as two parts of one thing. My application of this theory relates not only the process of making, but the subject of some of the poems as well, as two states that contribute to the harmony in intimate relationships.

I like that you see a tension there, too. There is actually a small but direct reference to prospect in the poem, “Resident,” which is a nod to that artist who lent me the idea, Julie Baugnet:  “The prospect of paint / is the refuge / of ideas.”Continue Reading

“Subjects We Never Completely Learn”: An Interview with Daniel Nester

Hamilton_Square,_NJ_BW_PsharesDaniel Nester’s prose zings back and forth between the heart and the funny bone. His latest book, Shader, is a kaleidoscopic coming-of-age story told in brief chapters called “notes.” It’s like one of those family slideshows that make us laugh, groan, squirm in our chairs, and sometimes cry. His previous books include How to Be Inappropriate, God Save My Queen I and II, and The Incredible Sestina Anthology, which he edited. Daniel teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. We caught up recently via email to talk about Shader, the dangers of memoir writing, and the joys of writing notes.

Matthew Thorburn: Shader is subtitled “99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects.” I’m curious how you came up with the “note” form, and what makes the subjects of these notes “unlearnable.”

Daniel Nester: Part of what “unlearnable” accomplishes, for me, is to challenge an often Pollyanna-ish approach memoirists bring to risk-taking, the “if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing” business. We’re supposed to learn from experience, yes, but the truth is that there are subjects we never completely learn.

The form came out of my practice of note-taking, which goes back to my first books on Queen, where I wrote a note for every song the band recorded. I like to joke that, when I write, I feel as smart as Susan Sontag, whose “Notes on ‘Camp’” is a big inspiration. Then I look at what’s on the page and realize that’s not the case.

MT: Shader is poignant, often hilarious, and throughout feels very candid. Was it difficult to revisit some of these experiences from your past—and write them down for people to read? Did you ever feel the temptation to revise your memories?

DN: I like your slideshow comparison. People who study memory will tell you we’re constantly revising memories from the place and time of our remembering. I started writing Shader before our first daughter was born—I knew my perspective would change. Once I got a memory down, I respected the memory: if I discovered I got a minor detail wrong, I considered keeping it, since that’s how I remembered and re-lived it.

Parts of this book were very difficult to write. The parts about my father were painful, and I wanted to portray Maple Shade as honestly as I could. In personal narrative, there’s the idea that you’re the protagonist of your own story, what Vivian Gornick calls the “unsurrogated” narrator, and so you’re tempted to make yourself look cooler or better. But when you’re rocking a mullet and you’ve got Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” on your tape deck, where do you start? Even Saint Augustine knew that humility runs the risk of being an “exploit.” Give me raw and candid, even prideful, honesty over twee faux-naïf mumblebrag all day long.Continue Reading

Tracing Literary Family Trees: An Interview with Mark Wunderlich

forest-trees-fog-foggyMark Wunderlich is a poet from the Midwest living in Hudson Valley, teaching at Bennington College. He’s received many fellowships, including those from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Megan Mayhew Bergman interviewed him for Ploughshares on craft, place, and essential reading for the new reader of poetry.

Megan Mayhew Bergman: As far as I know, I own all of your books, and what stands out to me are the dying notions of small Midwestern towns, the savagery of animal life and human action, physicality, darkness, intimacy.  

When it comes to the notion of home–and particularly the Midwest (I think particularly of Winter of Heaven, Winter of Ash, or Suture)–how has your thinking or work changed over time?  Do you feel yourself coming back, artistically, to these places?  Is there more to excavate there?

Mark Wunderlich: I don’t think I’ll ever be done writing and thinking about my birthplace. The town I grew up in is small, isolated, culturally distinctive (and distinctly monochrome) and deeply rural. The landscape is unique geographically, beautiful and even a little mysterious, (if Wisconsin can be described that way!). I grew up with animals, rural traditions, seasonal cycles that were tied to agricultural activities—planting, harvest, hunting seasons, lambing season, apple blossom time, slaughtering, etc. I feel lucky that I had the experience of knowing these activities and seasonal increments not just as metaphors, but as actual events and real work I got to perform. I don’t know that I will ever be done with that place or those experiences—are we ever really done with our own childhood?Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Short Flight/Long Drive Books

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Short Flight/Long Drive Books is an independent press that emerged from the online literary magazine Hobart, founded by writer Aaron Burch in 2001. Hobart, which currently posts a wide variety of new literary and contemporary culture content on a daily basis, launched Short Flight/Long Drive Books in 2006 with fiction writer Elizabeth Ellen at the helm.

Ellen has worn many hats at Hobart since 2002, serving by turns as Hobart’s co-editor, fiction editor, and poetry editor, and she has collected a number of distinguished and daring titles for SF/LD that are smart rather than merely clever, well-crafted without being overwrought.

SF/LD books range from the near-classic NowTrends by Karl Taro Greenfeld, stories mixing absurdity with the dark underbelly of international adventure, to Jess Stoner’s I Have Blinded Myself Writing This, an unsettling meditation on philosophy, memory and pain, to Selected Tweets by Tao Lin and Mira Gonzalez, whose Twitter conversation serves as an apt medium for disjointed narratives to form a story of personal connection in this fractured 21st century.

For Ploughshares, Elizabeth Ellen explains what makes Short Flight/Long Drive tick, as well as what’s on the travel itinerary in their near future.

Kate Flaherty: Like Short Flight/Long Drive, several new independent presses have evolved as an offshoot of a literary website. What motivated Hobart to expand to book publishing?

Elizabeth Ellen: Aaron and I had been working together to edit Hobart (both the print journal and the online journal) for about four years at that point, and while I enjoyed co-editing, it was clear that Hobart was Aaron’s baby, so to speak—that he had the last say-so when it came to anything Hobart-related—and I wanted my own baby to have say-so over. Books seemed a natural offshoot.Continue Reading

“That Swerve that Takes Me Somewhere Else”: An Interview with Rick Barot

Barot_InterviewRick Barot’s poems are assured, finely composed structures in which memory and emotion often take startling, deeply moving turns. He is the author of three books of poems, including The Darker Fall and Want. Rick was born in the Philippines, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now lives in Tacoma, Washington. He teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, where he directs The Rainier Writing Workshop. Recently I caught up with Rick via email to talk about his new book, Chord.

Matthew Thorburn: Chord seems very carefully arranged so that adjacent poems speak to each other, and so that different family stories and personal narratives are gradually woven together into a larger whole. How did you go about putting your poems together as a book? Is this a process that changes for you, from book to book?

imageRick Barot: The arrangement of Chord happened well after I’d finished writing the poems for the book. The poems were written over a span of about eight years, and during that time I didn’t have a sense of an overall theme that the poems were contributing to. I just wrote the poems. Some felt personal. Some felt polemical. I didn’t want to spend any time thinking about what the poems were and how they related to each other. I liked being surprised by what came up. My previous book, Want, had been a kind of project book. When I started it I had a clear sense of it in mind, and in the three years I wrote the poems of that book, I adhered to the theme. That experience taught me that I didn’t want to be that constrained in my next book. Until I had the poems in Chord spread out on my living room floor and I went through the process of moving things around and taking things out, I didn’t know that the book would be anything but a miscellaneous gathering of poems. In fact, to me it still feels like a miscellaneous gathering, even though I know it’s informed by recurring ideas and preoccupations.

MT: The opening poem, “Tarp,” is a wonderful example of something I especially admire in your work: the way you can start a poem with something from everyday life, something as seemingly unremarkable and harmless as a tarp, and then suddenly we find you’re writing about something much darker and closer to the heart. Would you talk about how a poem starts for you—and how you started writing this particular poem?Continue Reading