Artistry is a Kind of Citizenship – Ploughshares Interviews Allan Gurganus

gurganusI’ve been aware of Allan Gurganus since I was a few years old; we hail from the same small town, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and his books lined the shelves of homes I visited, and the local library. Turns out his name was also in the New Yorker, and when I was nine, his book The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All spent eight months on the New York Times Bestseller List. I’ve always admired Allan’s willingness and ability to dig in to the mess of life, rarely saying what “ought” to be said, but what is genuinely felt, and plumbing uncomfortable subjects like race and sexuality before doing so was common, especially in the south.  His first New Yorker story “Minor Heroism,” published in 1974, was the magazine’s first story to feature a gay character, and his work has continued to be elegantly radical, erotic, and full of eerily good sentences. Moreover, I continually find bewilderingly great and generous advice in Allan’s interviews, and knew I must ask my own questions.

Megan Mayhew Bergman: When you look back on your career as a writer, are you able to see a single moment where the clouds parted, momentum changed, and your career began? (Perhaps with the publication of your first New Yorker story, “Minor Heroism”?) Do these moments happen or are they made? What do you make out of the alchemy of talent, luck, and hard work when it comes to a writer forging a long-term career?

Allan Gurganus: Readers sometimes praise a writer’s self-discipline. They say, “I know I couldn’t wake up at six and make myself type about the same characters all day.”

A writer’s discipline should simply be called “obsession”. That word literally means “To sit before.” The way some pilgrim must bow daily to Mecca. Maybe our obsessions choose us. Obsessives tend to think that anyway! And writing is surely a better addiction than most.

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“So that the poem is an act of discovery”: An Interview with Brian Komei Dempster

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Brian Komei Dempster received the 15 Bytes Book Award in Poetry for his debut collection, Topaz (Four Way Books, 2013), which examines the experiences of a Japanese American family separated and incarcerated in American World War II prison camps. Through their interwoven narratives, his poems show us how the past never ends: it shapes and is in constant dialogue with our present lives, as our family histories are written into, and rewritten by, the lives of subsequent generations. Brian also edited From Our Side of the Fence: Growing Up in America’s Concentration Camps (Kearny Street Workshop, 2001) and Making Home from War: Stories of Japanese American Exile and Resettlement  (Heyday, 2011). A professor of rhetoric and language and a faculty member in Asian Pacific American Studies at the University of San Francisco, he also serves as Director of Administration for the M.A. program in Asia Pacific Studies. Next month he will serve as a fellow at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry.

Matthew Thorburn: Your poems combine historical narratives, your family’s stories, and your own experiences, which gives your work a wonderful texture and density—while also illustrating how these narratives are always intertwined with and complicated by one another. Would you talk about how a poem starts for you and how you weave these different threads together?

Brian Komei Dempster: A poem starts for me with an image, a scene, a phrase in my head. I must keep my pen moving and rational mind out of the way so that the poem is an act of discovery rather than a predictable journey. Sometimes I make surprising connections between events.

For example, “Transaction” started as a poem about the narrator’s mother receiving her redress check for her wartime incarceration in Topaz prison camp. As I wrote, this vignette intertwined with others: the narrator’s exploration of sexuality at a strip club; Detroit autoworkers blaming Vincent Chin for the loss of their jobs. In revision, I found it exciting to jump cut between the three narrative strands. Moving between historical injustices suffered by his family, his role perpetuating female commodification, and details surrounding Chin’s racially charged murder, the speaker shows the exclusionary and inclusionary nature of race and gender, money and power.Continue Reading

Novelists, You’re Doing It Right

There's a novel in here somewhere...

There’s a novel in here somewhere…

You’re trying to write a novel. Sometimes, it’s exhilarating: characters wake you in the night, yammering, springing into action. Sometimes, it’s excruciating: you stare into blankness, and finally, when the words arrive, they reek of your incompetence.

It’s taking forever, this novel of yours. It’s ugly. It’s full of holes. Is this normal? Writing advice is plentiful, but much of it boils down to:

  1. Writing is hard.
  2. Do it anyway.

“Butt in chair,” experts say. Be persistent. But maybe you’re starting to hate your novel. You have dark, escapist thoughts. You’re not feeling particularly pure of heart, nor steadfast of butt. Can you ditch your novel for long stretches, or cheat on it, or overhaul it, and still finish—maybe even sell?!—the book?

Novelists, I’m here to say: Yes. You’re doing it right. Over the past several months, I interviewed novelists who spent one year or more working on a novel and eventually sold their books. Here, I summarize everything they said about writing novels that you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask.Continue Reading

Reading Cookbooks Like Novels: Bookseller Bonnie Slotnick

Bookseller and freelance editor Bonnie Slotnick

Bookseller and freelance editor Bonnie Slotnick (Image: Nora Maynard)

Looking for an international cookbook by horror-film actor Vincent Price? A 1920s etiquette manual suitable for Jay Gatsby? Or Alice B. Toklas’ infamous tome with its recipe for fudge spiked with hashish? Bonnie Slotnick‘s got you covered.

With a collection of some 4,000 out-of-print and antiquarian culinary titles stocked in her cozy shop in New York’s West Village, Bonnie takes a refreshingly hands-on approach to selling. Whether she’s locating a replacement copy of an out-of-state customer’s well-loved, well-worn family cookbook, giving a local chef expert historical advice, or offering a visiting dog a biscuit, she always provides a personal touch.

I sat down with Bonnie to chat about her love of culinary writing as she cleaned and prepped some new arrivals for sale.

You once said you read cookbooks like novels. I’m intrigued.

I suppose you could say I first read cookbooks like children’s books, because I started when I was little. My mother had a 1940s copy of The Settlement Cook Book. This was put together by Jewish women who ran a settlement house in Milwaukee; it was originally published in 1901 and sold as a fundraiser.

The cover design especially appealed to me: a row of little girl cooks parading toward a heart, with the motto “The way to a man’s heart” above the title. There were also illustrations of children cooking at the start of some chapters. I used to just sit and read that book over and over again. Some of the recipes used words that were German or transliterated Yiddish or otherwise exotic—syllabub, timbale, kumquat, ramekin. I didn’t look them up, I just savored the sound of them in my head.Continue Reading

How to Feed Your Characters: The Food Timeline

Need to know how much that teetotaling taxidermist you're writing about would have paid for a case of soda in 1950s Mexico City? The Food Timeline can help.

Need to know how much that teetotaling taxidermist you’re writing about would’ve paid for a soda in 1950s Mexico City? The Food Timeline can help. (Image: Nora Maynard)

Writing about some hungry characters? In a time or place very different from your own? The Food Timeline might just save your bacon.

Founded by New Jersey-based reference librarian, Lynne Olver, FT is a free, open-access website and research service devoted to the history of all things culinary.

I interviewed Ms. Olver to find out more about this remarkable personal project—and to get some advice about writing food-related scenes in historically and culturally accurate ways.

PSHARES: How did you get the idea for the Food Timeline website?

LO: The website was inspired by James Trager’s The Food Chronology. This epic reference book chronicles key food events from prehistory to the 20th century. I was intrigued by the concept. As a reference librarian working in a public library, I encountered food history questions on a regular basis.

W71EK7T2XW7L._SY300_hen the Food Timeline debuted in March 1999, it offered a single page with links to vetted research sources. As time progressed, additional links, original content, and topical pages were added. Today’s site has 50 pages. Most of the content is researched, transcribed, HTML coded and uploaded by the editor (me). Food Timeline entries are selected based on questions frequently asked by our patrons. It is a work-in-progress and a labor of love.Continue Reading

Roundup: Conversations and Collaborations Among Writers

As we launch a new blog format for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on conversations and collaborations among writers.

Much has been professed about the nature of writers – that they are solitary creatures, or instead, ones that require community to fuel their work. Of course, there isn’t a definitive answer, and many writers are both. So let’s not generalize. As the great Mark Twain once put it, “All generalizations are false, including this one.”

Please enjoy these posts about writers connecting with other writers:

  • In this post, Alicia Jo Rabins explores the advantages of writers forming a creative partnership in Torah study, a “form of obsessive, passionate relation with words and meaning,” where it’s common to work in pairs.

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Hearing Voices: Women Versing Life presents: Deborah Clearman

Deborah Clearman

“You can say anything with kindness” is the oft-repeated phrase of most professors in writing workshops. It’s a reminder, of course, to speak the truth in our criticism of each other’s work, but to speak it gently. It’s one way to make the workshop environment feel safe and comfortable. Most of the time it works, which means that sometimes it doesn’t work.

But what if there was only kindness? That’s the philosophy of Deborah Clearman and her colleagues at the New York Writers Coalition: No criticism, just praise. It sounds radical, the idea that a writer would share a poem or story, receive only positive feedback in return, and continue to improve her writing, but Clearman says it works. The “praise only” model creates a whole new atmosphere of trust, which is important for Clearman because her workshops are held in a place where praise and comfort are often in short supply: women’s prison. Continue Reading

The Physics of Fiction, the Music of Philosophy: an Interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s astonishments as a philosopher and as a novelist are too numerous to list here. Already launched in her career as a philosophy professor, she reached a moment in her own life when philosophical inquiry no longer felt like a broad enough arena in which to explore the full range of human experience. In response, she began writing fiction—asking, from the perspective of her philosophical training, what seemed “the most ‘unprofessional’ sorts of questions”.

These unprofessional questions have propelled her through six novels and a book of short stories, even as she’s continued producing philosophical texts. Upon granting her a fellowship, the MacArthur Foundation stated that her works “emerge as brilliant arguments for the belief that fiction in our time may be the best vehicle for involving readers in questions of morality and existence.”

Her fiction, though, feels anything but theoretical.

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Tips and Tricks: an Interview with Tom Parker

For today’s post, I am interviewing my long-time writing coach and mentor Tom Parker. I first met Tom at a writer’s workshop run out of University of California, Berkeley six years ago. He was the professor, and I was an overconfident young writer who needed guidance. Since then, he has been helping me improve nearly all of my stories. He has been the person I turn to when I believe a story is done, because I know he will tell me that I am wrong and how I need to improve.

In addition to being a teacher, he is also a writer, having authored or co-authored seven books, including two novels. His short story “Troop Withdrawal: The Initial Step” was published in Prize Stories 1971: The O.Henry Awards.Continue Reading

Learning to Listen: an Interview with Susan Power

Susan Power

When I first started reading Susan Power’s novel, The Grass Dancer, I knew little about her. We’d met briefly through a mutual friend, and I knew that Susan had been a fellow at Radcliffe’s Bunting Institute. I also knew from her bio that she was an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and a native Chicagoan, and that her novel was set on and off a Sioux reservation. When I’d finished reading The Grass Dancer near dawn, though (I’d stayed up most of the night reading), I knew that Susan was a writer I’d follow into any territory she chose to explore. Her characters were funny and tragic, pragmatic and soulful, often at the same time…and the story she told was utterly gripping.Continue Reading