Archive for the ‘Interview’ Category

Interview: Ramona Ausubel

This month, we had the opportunity to talk with one of our favorite writers on the planet: Ramona Ausubel. Her fourth book, Awayland, published earlier this month. In this, Ausubel’s second collection of short stories, a Cyclops looks for love online, a rootless mother turns to mist, and a couple loves each other so intensely that they want to, literally, exchange hands. Here, Ausubel shares her wisdom about using magic to tackle complex emotions, about forging lovely sentences, and about arranging a cohesive story collection. Read this interview, and then get lost in Awayland yourself.

“Language is my home base. Sentences and images are the reason I write in the first place, the reason I’ll never quit even if no one ever pays me or reads a single word again. It’s about naming a precise feeling or moment in a world that is constantly rushing us ever onward. It’s about dredging up the fantastically complex inside life and allowing it a way to live above ground.”

First of all, let me just say how much I enjoyed Awayland. I am a huge fan of both your novels and your stories and I was so thrilled to see another collection by you. Like your first collection (A Guide to Being Born), Awayland is also broken into four distinct sections: “Bay of Hungers,” “The Cape of Persistent Hope,” “The Lonesome Flats,” and “The Dream Isles.” Can you talk a little bit about how you arrived at this structure? Did you write the stories to fit it, arrange the structure based on the stories, or a little bit of both?

I’m delighted to talk to you! I wrote these stories over the course of several years and there are so many questions and layers of my own life and mind in them and the themes in the collection come from these places. But I wanted, in the end, to turn eleven stories into one book and I like the way those sections help build a larger arc. In this book, which takes place all over the world, I wanted a kind of mythical landscape on which to plot the stories and their individual geographies.

Some of my favorite stories of yours have magical elements. What stands out to me about them is that they all have a real, emotional anchor—which is always beautifully expressed. In “Fresh Water from the Sea,” for example, a woman’s mother is literally turning into mist but this is closely tied to the mother’s own feeling of rootlessness. How do you accomplish this? What comes first: the magical component or the emotional one?

I love to use magic as an amplification of something real in the emotional realm. I have felt that feeling of rootlessness (for entirely different reasons than the character in that story) and yet I’ve always had a hard time naming that feeling clearly. In the story I gave the feeling a physical manifestation so that I could see and feel it at its real emotional volume. Sometimes I come up with the conceit first—what if a Cyclops filled out an online dating profile?—and then build the realness into it and sometimes I come up with the feeling first and then build a physical life for it.

What are you reading (and loving) right now?

In my bag right now I have three books: The Seabeast Takes a Lover by Michael Andreasen, which is a collection that I loved long before it was a book (Michael and I went to grad school together) and am besotted with once again; There There by Tommy Orange (out in summer, 2018) which is a ferocious and amazing novel centering on a cast of contemporary Native American characters in Oakland, California; and Fever Dogs by Kim O’Neil, another splendid collection from an old friend and another book I have waited for with baited breath.


Interview: Carmen Maria Machado

We were thrilled to have the chance to interview the talented Carmen Maria Machado. Her debut short story collection, Her Body And Other Parties, has been met with much-deserved acclaim and was recently shortlisted for The National Book Award. In one of her stories, a woman always wears a green ribbon around her neck, with the understanding that others aren’t meant to touch it. In another, a writer meets an otherworldly cast of characters at a residency. Machado’s voice is wholly unique. Here, we talk to her about her influences and what we can look forward to seeing from her next.

“I honestly just wondered if it would be possible to write a short story in the form of episode capsule summaries, where the episodes could function autonomously or as part of a larger narrative.”

First of all, I have to say that I really enjoyed your debut collection. The stories are wholly unique, and they are tinged with all sorts of different genres: fairy tales, ghost stories, horror, dystopian fiction. So I have to ask: Who are your influences? What do you love to read? 

Thank you so much! My influences are pretty wide-ranging. Some are obvious: Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Helen Oyeyemi. Some are set a little deeper in my past: Ray Bradbury, Lois Duncan, John Bellairs, Louis Sachar, Roald Dahl, Gabriel García Márquez.

I will follow that up with: what are some of your favorite scary stories?

Shirley Jackson’s “The Tooth,” Adam Nevill’s “Where Angels Come In,” Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” Victor LaValle’s “The Ballad of Black Tom.”

There are a lot of darker elements to your stories, but one of them is that many of the female protagonists are denied control over their own bodies. The wife in “The Husband Stitch” asks for only one private thing: that her husband not touch the green ribbon that is always tied around her neck. But, her husband cannot accept this. In “Real Women Have Bodies,” women begin to literally fade to nothing, and no one can explain it or help them. In “Eight Bites,” a woman who undergoes bariatric surgery is haunted by the ghost of the parts of herself she has given up (if you would agree with this description). This seems like a very intentional theme of the collection (it is even echoed in the title). Can you tell me more about the process behind it? 

It’s less intentional than you think! The fact is, women are denied control of their own bodies in a horrific number of ways, and so it makes a lot of sense that writing from my own voice, thoughts, and experiences would result in stories where this theme continually resurfaces.

The collection includes a novella in which you reimagine episodes of Law & Order: SVU as a series of short summaries full of an otherworldly cast of characters. The novella works beautifully as a whole, but the individual stories are also complete in themselves. I thought this was really cool! Could you talk about your inspiration for this story and the process of writing it?

I’ve always been interested in writing about TV. One of my favorite short stories is Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners,” which is its own surreal, fabulist love letter to fandom and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I honestly just wondered if it would be possible to write a short story in the form of episode capsule summaries, where the episodes could function autonomously or as part of a larger narrative. I used the actual titles from the first twelves seasons, so I had a little flake of inspiration for each one. Eventually, the plots and subplots grew out of there. As I was writing it, I found myself engaging with my complicated feelings about the show on the page. The rest is history.

What are you working on now? What will we see next from you?

My memoir House in Indiana is coming out with Graywolf in 2019, so those edits are the next big thing I’m tackling. I also have a few other things in progress—an essay collection, a novel-in-stories.

Interviewed by Sadye Teiser

Interview: Award-Winning Editor, John Joseph Adams

Enormous thanks to the incredible John Joseph Adams for chatting with us this month. John Joseph Adams is the editor and publisher of the magazines Nightmare and the Hugo Award-winning Lightspeed, and also is a producer for WIRED’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. He is editor of a new science fiction/fantasy imprint from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt called John Joseph Adams Books, and is the series editor of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, as well as the editor of many other anthologies, such as Wastelands, and The Living Dead. You can learn more about him at, and below, as we discuss horror, publishing, and their interesting intersections.

“I have kind of a weird relationship with horror, especially as someone who publishes a horror magazine: horror never scares me.”


You’ve edited so many anthologies you’ve been called, “the reigning king of the anthology world.” But you also edit and publish the magazines Lightspeed and Nightmare, and prior to that you worked for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Aside from the quick turnover of new material, what do the magazines satisfy in terms of your editorial interests that anthologies don’t?

Editing a short fiction magazine is essentially the purest kind of editorial curation, so it offers a lot of freedom (especially when you’re also the publisher of the magazine, since you can literally take the magazine in any direction you want to). I say it’s the purest form of curation because with an anthology, there are a lot of commercial considerations that you have to weigh to even make the anthology happen in the first place, whereas with a magazine there’s much more freedom, because there’s not a huge uptick in sales or traffic for getting a story by, say, a New York Times bestselling author, so you can fill the magazine entirely by just selecting what you consider the best of what’s submitted to you, without having to chase after specific authors to try to get them to write stories for you.

But also, a magazine offers the freedom from theme that is hard to get with an anthology. With the magazine, with there being no restriction on theme, there’s no telling what you’ll be in for each time you start reading a new story, whereas with a theme anthology, you can have a lot of variety, but due to the theme you have a better idea of what to expect.

Also, with a magazine, it’s easier to be timely, if you have a story that is resonant of something happening in the culture right now, and it’s also a lot easier, with a magazine that has an online component, to have a single story drive the conversation in the genre, since it’s much easier to get people to read something you think is great if you can just give them a link to where it is online, with no cost-barrier to entry.

What questions or interests drive the development of a new anthology? In your upcoming anthology What the #@&% is That, co-edited with Douglas Cohen, all the stories have a character who asks: “What the #@&% is that,” servicing the idea of horror being fear of the unknown. How did the project come to be and which pieces in the book best exemplify this fear?

That anthology started with my co-editor, Douglas Cohen, who was inspired to do it by a meme that was going around a couple of years ago that was making fun of an H.P. Lovecraft cover. There was a new collection of his work being released that had a nice Mike Mignola cover on it, featuring Cthulhu, and someone took the cover and retitled it What the Fuck is That? and made up some fake author blurbs and such to extend the joke.

The book actually has a bit of a complicated history otherwise, which you can read about in the introduction, but Doug was originally going to edit it with someone else, who ended up dropping out, and so Doug asked me if I wanted to co-edit with him. Once I came on board, we transitioned it from a strictly Lovecraftian book to a general-interest horror/monster book, and we also changed the “fuck” in the title to the grawlix, which gave the authors the freedom to sub in whatever word they wanted when they used the eponymous phrase in their stories. And the final thing I brought to the table personally was that Doug had initially been thinking of doing this as a Kickstarter anthology, and I said I thought we could sell it to a traditional publisher, and we did.

Perhaps the best story that exemplifies that fear is Alan Dean Foster’s story “Castleweep.” That story is just really suffused with dread. We put it last in the book because of that—because it felt like a great note to end on, and is one of those stories that will kind of haunt you for a while after finishing it. Otherwise, I think Seanan McGuire’s tale told in tweets, “#connollyhouse #weshouldntbehere,” is creepy AF, and of course I think the other stories in the anthology do a good job of capturing that as well!

You’re series editor of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, the newest edition published on October 4, 2016. Can you talk about what makes this year’s anthology special?

Well, as always… it’s the stories that make it special! But of course, the guest editor does too—and working with Karen Joy Fowler was a real honor and pleasure. I suspect a lot of people see her as kind of an outsider or as a strange choice to serve as guest editor, but she actually got her start publishing in genre fiction, publishing stories in magazines like Asimov’s and F&SF back in the day, and her first couple novels were also published as genre books. Plus, she’s the president of the Clarion Foundation, which administers to the Clarion Writers Workshop, so in a lot of ways she was really the ideal person to serve as guest editor—really kind of the most qualified for the job any person could be who is not already a working editor in the field.

I was thrilled with the way the first volume turned out (with Joe Hill as guest editor), and the same is true of this one. I think both did a really great job of bridging that gap between literary and genre. The 2016 edition includes stories by major literary writers like Salman Rushdie and Adam Johnson—and those were both stories that genre readers likely wouldn’t have come across during their regular reading, even if they regularly read short genre fiction. (Johnson’s appeared in Harper’s and in his collection; Rushdie’s appeared in The New Yorker.) Likewise, Sofia Samatar’s story appeared in a micro press two-story chapbook that a lot of people probably hadn’t seen already. Of course there’s also stories included from genre mainstays like Lightspeed,, F&SF, and Asimov’s, as you would expect. I think the book showcases a huge range of variety, both in terms of the types of authors, the types of stories, and the types of publications represented, which I think makes for a really interesting book. (more…)

Interview: Kelly Link

In Kelly Link’s stories, teenage girls buy robotic Vampire Boyfriends, astronauts tell ghost stories in outer space, superheroes hold conventions in hotels, and rabbits become creatures of bizarre menace. Get in Trouble, Kelly Link’s fourth collection, was recently a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. But Link has long had a loyal following, and it’s easy to see why. It’s clear that Link herself has fun with her fiction, and that energy is infectious. Here, we talk with Link about playing with genre conventions, short stories vs. novels, and the use of unreal elements in her stories.

kelly link

One of the things that I love about your stories is that they mix so many different genres. In your latest collection, Get in Trouble, astronauts tell ghost stories and horror stories (“Two Houses”). Many of your stories contain superheroes and supervillians (“Secret Identity,” “Origin Story”). And still others are populated by magical, otherworldly creatures (“The Summer People”). When you are writing, are you aware of the ways in which your stories are playing with particular traditions? How does this inform your technique?

Hi! Thank you! Look, when I think about writing at all, I’m usually thinking about genre and, more generally, about the conventions (the expectations that readers have) of certain kinds of story shapes. Most of the stories in the new collection started out with me thinking things like: how can I tell a ghost story on a space ship? What informs a ghost story if the people in it are isolated in every possible way from their own history, their own families, and the natural world? Or: what’s my entry point into a superhero story? Well, what if I set it in an abandoned theme park in the mountains of North Carolina? Even the one non-genre story in the collection, “The Lesson” is influenced by me thinking about genre in the sense that the rule for writing it was: I won’t utilize ghosts or monsters or genre elements here, so what can I put into a story that disorders/disarranges/estranges a reader in lieu of the fantastic element?

Up to this point, you have made your name as a short story writer. In my opinion the current literary environment puts a lot of pressure on writers to publish debut novels. Did you ever feel the pressure to write a novel early on?

It did seem clear enough, yes, that it would be easier to publish a debut novel than a debut collection. We started a press because we realized that there was a niche for short story collections, particularly collections that had at least a toe in genre. But on the other hand, I didn’t feel any particular pressure to write a novel because I wanted with all of my heart to write short stories. I want to write short stories even when I don’t like writing them. I don’t actually like writing. But I want (and wanted) to write short stories enough that it seemed worth doing despite how awful and difficult and uncomfortable it can be, figuring out how to make a short story work. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to write exactly the kind of things that I want to write, and to be published in the kinds of magazines that I most wanted to be published in. The initial goal—figuring out how to make a particular short story work in such a way that I felt satisfied with it—is still the thing that I feel I ought to pay attention to. Everything else is going much better than I ever expected.

It’s only in the last three years that I’ve had any desire at all to write something novel-shaped. And it’s more sideways than that. The stories that I wrote got longer and longer, and finally Holly Black pointed out to me that whether or not I meant to, I was headed in the direction of a novel. And I should be clear that even when I had no plans to write a novel, it was pleasurable to know that there were people who were enthusiastic about the idea of a novel, especially when I had no intention of writing one. Now that I’m writing one, it’s much less pleasurable. Much, much better to be the person who hasn’t written something that everyone wants, than to be the person who has written a novel that turns out not to be particularly interesting.


Interview With C. Michael Curtis – Fiction Editor for The Atlantic

C. Michael Curtis has been editing fiction for The Atlantic since the sixties, publishing writers like Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, and Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few. We spoke with him about the experience of publishing authors early in their careers as well as the value of short fiction in a publication that also publishes, news, culture, and politics. The Atlantic stands among a select few as a publication that readers and writers value for its quality and tenure — a real literary heavy-hitter. An enormous thanks to Mr. Curtis for discussing what The Atlantic looks for in fiction submissions, its attitude toward the slush pile, and advice for new writers.

atlantic editor

You’ve been editing fiction for The Atlantic since 1963 and have been Fiction Editor for the magazine since 1982. What stories and authors stand out most to you after five decades?

This is one of those “which-of-your-children-do-you-love-most?” questions. They all stand out, though for different reasons. We’re naturally pleased when we find and publish a writer with little or no track record, then watch as that writer becomes a substantial critical and often economic success.

The “beginning” writers I remember most are the ones who have become hugely successful, virtual household names: Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, and Louise Erdrich are among the most notable, but others whose first major publication was in The Atlantic include Ann Beattie, Bobby Ann Mason, Ethan Canin, James Alan McPherson, Tobias Wolff, John Sayles, and many others.

What was it like watching writers who were relatively unknown at the time become celebrated authors?

As above, we take great pleasure in the successes of Oates, Carver, and Erdrich, but we know that other editors have spotted their talents and rewarded them accordingly.

We also know, sometimes with discomfort, how difficult the struggle was. Erdrich, for example, began submitting her stories while still a Dartmouth undergraduate, and was still in her late 20’s before a story clicked with Atlantic editors. Carver was turned away for years, perhaps because otherwise shrewd editors failed to grasp that Carver’s blue collar lingo and settings masked a heartfelt understanding of working class anomie, that Carver’s troubled middle American was struggling with classic challenges of parenthood, class dignity, alcoholism, and spiritual numbness. Oates, whose earliest stories I read while assisting at Epoch, was both young and prolific while a writing student at Syracuse. She wrote then as “J. C. Oates,” and wrote stories fueled by drinking, violence, domestic wandering, and broken-down Chevrolets. I pictured “J. C Oates” as a scruffy garage mechanic with a sour view of humanity, someone I wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night. But whose writing, relentless as it was, had to be admired.

After I joined The Atlantic staff, taking leave from my graduate studies in Government, I soon encountered a submission from Joyce Carol Oates (mystery solved), which was way too long for Atlantic purposes and, we thought, oddly titled. After cutting and editing, and with a new title, the story appeared in The Atlantic and was subsequently chosen for inclusion in the next year’s O. Henry Collection, and identified as the “best story of the year.”

The Atlantic allows for unsolicited submissions. Do you still read stories from the slush? Can you comment on how many stories you publish from the slush pile in a year?

The Atlantic does continue to read every story submitted for consideration, though some require more careful attention than others. Stories in the latter category are dogged by bad spelling, bad grammar, bad language, and uncertain outcomes. We have always made room for stories by beginners or little-published writers, for a time publishing as many as a dozen or so each year. In those days, however, The Atlantic published several stories in each issue. In the 80’s the number dropped to one story per issue, and in recent years we have found room for fiction only periodically. Even so, The Atlantic’s appetite for work from the unannounced, remains firm.

What do you look for in a story? The quality of fiction in The Atlantic is always high, but with so little space available, how does one decide which stories to publish?

What do we look for in a story? Distinctiveness in the use of language, in both exposition and dialogue; plot mechanics that move the story along (less about “how things are,” more about “how things change”); control of language formalities (spelling, grammar, aptness, persuasiveness, sentence structure, etc.); and imagination. As for deciding which story to publish, of the selection available in our inventory, we take into account length, imminent publication (in a book) and fitness, given the other ingredients that make up an issue. In recent years we’ve kept our inventory small, not wishing to buy stories for which we never seem to have room. That has meant, in recent years, some taking and editing stories we then felt obliged to turn loose, wishing to give writers other opportunities. (more…)

Interview: David Naimon of Between the Covers

It was our great pleasure to interview David Naimon, the force behind Portland-based podcast Between the Covers, which produces thoughtful, in-depth interviews with a wide range of contemporary authors. We chatted with Naimon about writing that blurs boundaries, moments of surprise in interviews, and the Portland literary scene. Read the interview and then check out the Between the Covers podcast here. You will be glad that you did.

The Between the Covers podcast is your creation, so I’m curious to hear how you would describe it to someone who had never heard of it, beyond the fact that it’s a radio show in which you interview contemporary authors. 

Between the CoversMore and more, I like writing that is hard to categorize, that crosses or blurs boundaries. Conversations with writers who are either working in that space between forms, or interrogating traditional forms, are often the most dynamic ones. While every author on the show doesn’t fall into this category, I do think this is a through line for the Between the Covers roster of authors. The blurring of boundaries between genres is one example, between poetry and lyric essay in the works of Sarah Manguso, Claudia Rankine, and Maggie Nelson, between fiction and nonfiction in the works of Kyle Minor, Lidia Yuknavitch, Chris Kraus, and Sheila Heti, the strange interplay and tension between image and text in the works of Leni Zumas and Luca DiPierro, Veronica Gonzalez Peña, Valeria Luiselli, and Claudia Rankine, and writers that straddle the worlds of “literary realism” and “genre fiction” like Kelly Link, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Lethem, Ben Parzybok, and Jo Walton. I also try to create a sense of boundary crossing across episodes by juxtaposing unlikely authors. It gives me a perverse pleasure to imagine someone drawn to the show for Mary Ruefle finding themselves listening to Neal Stephenson or vice versa. I think this cross-pollination is super valuable and helps expand the sense of what literature is and can be.

Lastly, I should clarify that the Between the Covers podcast is my creation but the Between the Covers radio broadcast is not. The radio broadcast airs on KBOO 90.7 FM here in Portland fifty-two weeks a year, and I host only about a third of those shows. I created the podcast both to create a more unified aesthetic and interview style and to reach a more national and international audience, but there are some truly great episodes on the radio broadcast too.

What prompted you to start Between the Covers? What were you doing before that led you to it? What was the process of getting it off the ground?

I’ve hosted a health show on KBOO 90.7 FM for about fifteen years now. About six years ago, unbeknownst to me, one of the more active hosts of Between the Covers left the show, and all the programmers started receiving emails like “Rick Moody is coming to town, can anyone do this interview?” I approached our news coordinator about trying my hand at an interview for Between the Covers and did my first with Anthony Doerr (before he became a household name), whose short stories I held (and hold) in high esteem. Fortunately, he was so friendly and gracious and disarming that it was a great experience. I quickly discovered that interviews about literature were far more fulfilling than ones about health, mostly because there was an infinitely greater sense of mystery and spontaneity with regard to how an interview would go, how an author would respond to a given question.

As far as getting the podcast off the ground, I couldn’t have done any of it without author and web-wizard Ben Parzybok. He’s been instrumental every step of the way. Once the podcast was on iTunes and had its corresponding website, it really took on a life of its own. As of today, it gets 10,000 downloads a month, mainly from English-speaking countries (US, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand) and France and Germany. There is also a growing audience in Haiti, Mongolia, Indonesia, Japan, really all over. It’s fun to track.

One of my favorite things about Between the Covers is the variety of authors and genres. As you mentioned, your guests have written everything from essay to literary fiction to science fiction, and have included everyone from Mary Gaitskill to Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s like being part of the best book club in town. How are the authors chosen? Also, it’s clear from the show that you must do immense amounts of research on each guest. How much prep time do you have, and what do you to prepare?

I choose the guests myself but under certain constraints. The most notable constraint is that our news coordinator requires the interviews to be done in-studio, thus eliminating anyone who is not physically coming through Portland. That said, I have contacted several authors whose tours weren’t coming here (Lorrie Moore and George Saunders come to mind) who succeeded in getting the city added to their itineraries, and other authors who weren’t touring have flown here solely for the interview (e.g., Claudia Rankine did, prior to Citizen exploding within the national consciousness). But these are the exceptions.

The other constraint is time. As you noted, I spend a lot of time preparing. Reading and listening to previous interviews with the author, in particular, serves several purposes for me over and above learning about the writer and their work. For one, you quickly find the things a person says over and over again, the things they’ve prepared to say while they are on tour. I don’t want to avoid these questions altogether because for many listeners, Between the Covers is their first and sometimes only exposure to a given author in an interview context and this rehearsed information is usually material that is important to the author and potentially fundamental to their relationship to the work they are discussing. But I also think interviews, especially radio interviews, that remain solely in this realm run the danger of feeling flat. I think the main reason I’ll read other interviews is to find ways to nudge the author out of autopilot, to create moments of surprise or novelty for the writer on the air so that the interview feels more dynamic. If I have enough time I also read other books by the writer in addition to their most recent one, particularly if it is in a different genre (say a poetry collection by a debut novelist), which can give a different insight into their sensibility. But because I do spend so much time in preparation it both limits the number of people I can interview a year and means I find myself saying “no” to authors I would die to interview simply because I can’t squeeze it into my schedule. That can be frustrating.


Interview: Amber Sparks

The Unfinished World BigWe were thrilled to interview Amber Sparks, whose second short story collection, The Unfinished World, came out from Liveright last month. It follows her debut May We Shed These Human Bodies, out from Curbside Splendor. Sparks’s short works are exquisitely crafted and entirely unique. One story in this latest collection is about houses for corpses that were actually built above ground, complete with quarters for guards to keep watch in case the dead reawoke. (Who knew these once existed?) Another story focuses heavily on taxidermy. There is one about hunting werewolves, one about a resurrected Lancelot, one set in a space station. Most of the stories are quite short, conveyed in dense and dazzling prose. We are proud to give you a glimpse into the creation of this beautiful collection.

First of all, let me just say how much I enjoyed your collection The Unfinished World. The subjects of your stories are just so awesome and varied. I know you must get this question a lot, but I have to ask: Where do your ideas for stories come from?

I’d love to say they come from my wildly adventurous life, but they come almost entirely from my reading experience. I’m a voracious reader and I read everything, especially history, fairy tales, literary fiction. I read something and if it seems to me it needs a different perspective, a different way of telling it, then I try to figure out what that different way of telling might be, and go for it.

Your collection contains a novella that is set in the early 1900s. You include major historical events like World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic. But you also have great fun with early twentieth century culture: when your characters are introduced to moving pictures or the work of Picasso, the reader also feels like she is discovering these things for the first time. My question is twofold. First: what was the research process for this novella like? And second: how did the research inform your writing?

So you can see right there how the answer to one plays into the other. History! I’m obsessed with the early twentieth century and particularly World War I and its aftermath. I knew that the novella was about, among other things, the hard juxtaposition between the old and the new. There’s the amazing Onion headline about the Titanic, “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg,” which is one of the best things ever written because it’s clever and a perfect truism at the same time. The research was pretty immense, for this densely packed little story. I read lots of stuff about the time period, particularly researching a lot of the events and subjects I knew I wanted to write about, like the Armory show you mention, or documentary film making, or Arctic exploration during the twenties. Most of the novella is pretty true/accurate, especially by my usually liberal standards, though I take some liberties here, too. A lot of the writing also did come out of the research—I’d read about something that sounded interesting, and if it fit I’d write about that, too. The entire character of Lana Volcana came from my reading about Pola Negri for another project entirely, which is kind of how I roll.

Your work has been compared to that of Karen Russell and Kelly Link, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter. On your website, you list writers like Italo Calvino, Phillip K. Dick, Woolf, and Borges as heroes. My question is: what writers have had the most direct and powerful influence on your work?

Kelly Link is a pretty direct influence, for sure—I’m constantly in awe of what she does, how much actual, feral magic she manages to get on a page. I’m trying, always, for that. Matt Bell and Roxane Gay are two contemporary fiction writers who have had a huge influence on me in terms of style in particular—Matt has this very big and luscious sense of language, and Roxane a cool, elegant way of saying, and both are some of the most stylish writers I know and I’m sure that filters down into what I do all the time. Nabokov has probably had the most direct influence in terms of both subject matter, tone, and style—I would give anything to write a novel like Ada or Ardor or Pale Fire. I doubt whether anybody knows this writer, sadly, but Diana Wynne Jones, a fantasy and YA author, has had a huge influence on me, both in how I write fantasy and also how I write children—plus she’s hilarious and since I’ve been reading her since I was a little girl, I’m sure I’ve picked up her style of humor a bit—a very dry and British sense of humor. Same with E. Nesbit, actually, another children’s author. I read a lot of Brits as a kid and I always admired the very restrained humor in those books. It seemed so much funnier, smarter and more KNOWING than the rather exuberant American children’s books I read—and also perhaps not condescending to the kids in the same way American YA books often seemed to be. (At least, back then.)


Interview: Andrew Lloyd-Jones of Liars’ League

Liars’ League NYC is an awesome reading series and literary journal. Here’s how it works: actors read original stories by writers for an appreciative crowd at the intimate KGB Bar. The stories are then published on the Liars’ League site and made available as podcasts. Sound cool? We thought so too, which is why we were thrilled to interview founder, producer, and host Andrew Lloyd-Jones.

Aimee Howard performing - LL

Aimee Howard performing at a reading in December.

What inspired you to start Liars’ League?

We set up Liars’ League London eight years ago when we realized that while writers love the writing process, they don’t necessarily love the performance aspect when it comes to readings (and some actively avoid it). So by having actors read the stories, we were just leveling the playing field—as we say, writers write, actors read, audience listens, everybody wins. When I moved here, I set up Liars’ League NYC with exactly the same philosophy—but a different accent. New York has an incredibly dynamic literary community—and over here, I was hugely inspired by series like Amanda Stern’s Happy Ending series (now at Symphony Space), Suzanne Dottino’s Sunday Night Fiction, Blaise Allysen Kearsley’s How I Learned, and Gabriel Delahaye and Lindsay Robertson’s Ritalin Readings.

Liars’ League is unique in that trained actors are reading new short stories, which haven’t been published anywhere else, by a variety of emerging and established writers.

Aside from the obvious, how do you think that the feel of this differs from an author reading his or her own work? Do the writers and actors ever talk and collaborate before the performance?

I think there’s a difference between reading a story aloud and bringing it to life. That’s where actors truly shine—they’re fantastic at painting the words, becoming the characters. Liars’ League also gives the audience a different way to engage with and immerse themselves in a story—because it’s removed from the context of the author. I love author readings too—they’re an ideal opportunity to meet writers, ask questions, have books signed, and so on—but at Liars’ League NYC events, we focus purely on the story. As far as rehearsals go, our writers are invited to meet their actors, and take part in the run-through—and if they can’t make it, they’re welcome to suggest notes for the performance if they have specific suggestions.


Interview: Vanessa Blakeslee on Her Debut Novel, Juventud

 Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut novel Juventud (Curbside Splendor) follows Mercedes Martinez through her life in Santiago de Cali, in a novel that is equal parts coming-of-age story and an exploration of political turmoil. This is her newest work since Train Shots, which won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. Blakeslee addresses guns, violence, drug trafficking, and Colombia’s tumultuous history in this interview about her stunning new novel.

Juventud_book coverWhen the novel opens, your protagonist is a teenage girl named Mercedes who lives a sheltered, but still dangerous life with her wealthy single father on a hacienda in Santiago de Cali. Her strength and innocence are appealing, sympathetic qualities, but she’s far from perfect. In what ways did you relate to Mercedes when creating her, outside simple gender traits? Were there times when you disagreed with her decisions?

At one point when Mercedes is visiting her aunt, she thinks, “I felt at any moment, one slight decision would take me down a wrong road, but I never could tell which decision would reap such a result, so on I plunged into vagueness.” That line encapsulates the universal frustration we all share, operating from a first-person consciousness—each of us is doing the best we can with the limited information we’ve got to make decisions. Which speaks to the greater theme of the novel and its title, youth. Experience doesn’t accumulate nor translate into perspective until around age thirty, I’ve found. In creating young Mercedes, I very much related to her attraction to Manuel and defiance of her father’s warnings; when she’s riding on the back of Manuel’s motorcycle and taking in her surroundings, I can recall that poignant sense of nothing but liberation and possibility ahead. Later, I felt I keenly understood her enthusiasm for foreign travel, her career ambitions, and her regrets. As far as decisions go, I don’t think it was smart of her to travel to Israel when she did—she’s definitely a lot gutsier than me! Then again, I didn’t grow up in Santiago de Cali.

Your story spans fifteen years. How did you decide where and when to end Mercedes’s journey?

Where to end it felt inevitable once I knew Mercedes would have to confront the key players from her past, and I also tend to think of a novel as having an inherent urge to come full circle. There’s also a long tradition in literature going back to the Greeks of the hero’s journey and the return, so from fairly early on I knew she’d be coming back. But I didn’t know how specifically the narrative would circle back, in scene and image, until nearly the final draft. I certainly don’t see her future as fixed—in fact that’s what is most exciting about the point upon which the story ends, because she could go anywhere. I feel strongly that she’ll go back to the US for a while, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Mercedes ends up, a few years down the road, as a truly global citizen, living in Europe, or even, as she dreamed early on, in Argentina.

Though written in English, the dialogue in Juventud is flavored with many Spanish terms. Did you consider this a challenge, and did you intentionally push beyond a more familiar culture to pursue the backdrop that exists within the novel?

I did intend to push beyond the familiar, yes. The Greek playwrights had a long tradition of writing about wars and tragedies set in other lands—a slight-of-hand of sorts on the dramatist’s part, because audiences will sometimes be more willing to stare at tragedies not taking place in their own front yards. The trick is, of course, that the story is still a reflection or lesson for the audience and what ills their culture, in some ways. By that logic, what better way to show what a country with a wider gap between the haves and have-nots looks like than a neighbor in our own hemisphere? The Spanish didn’t pose too much of a challenge since I’d studied it throughout high school and college, and traveled in Spanish-speaking countries (although so much time has passed, I’m sadly barely proficient). I was acutely aware that I wanted to reinforce the fact they were speaking Spanish in Part One, but wanted to shy away from the rather lame Hollywood effect of characters speaking English with Spanish accents. Perhaps a tall order for a novel that takes place in a Spanish country but written in English, for an English-speaking audience. But the book’s construct is such that Mercedes is now writing her story as a memoir, as an English-speaking American. So hopefully that reinforces the verisimilitude.

Is the perception of a cocaine-fueled 1980s indicative of that particular decade? In your opinion, is the lack of coverage on drug trafficking evident of a society that has become more lax in drug laws, the increasing rise of prescription drugs, or something else altogether?

Cocaine played such a monumental role in the relationship between Colombia and North America in the 1980s that I felt I’d be hard-pressed to exclude it from a novel largely set in 1990s Cali. The adult characters, Diego and Paula, Luis and Uncle Charlie, Tia Leo and her husband, all would have had cocaine touch upon their youth during the previous two decades. The only question was, to what degree?

From the first draft, cocaine-trafficking as a subject gave me serious pause. For so long, the message of the 1980s and 1990s was the “War on Drugs,” which clearly amounted to a failure; the American public became numb to it. By then we’d seen so many after-school specials and Hollywood depictions of lives ruined by cocaine that the message became tired and clichéd. And, as you’ve pointed out, the new wave of drug problems in the US has swelled to include prescription drug abuse and other illegal designer substances. (more…)

The Masters Review Interview Series

As part of our platform, The Masters Review strives to provide informative and inspiring online content for emerging writers. One of our favorite ways to do this is through interviews with authors, editors, and agents. We’ve had the chance to talk to many amazing thinkers, but here are a few selections from our interviews archive.

 Kevin Brockmeier

We talked to Volume IV judge Kevin Brockmeier about his first memoir, the art of the sentence, some of the different shapes novels can take, and genre and literary overlaps:

author interview_brockmeier“I would love to see a future in which the distinction between literary and science fiction, mainstream novels and graphic novels, realism, surrealism, and magical realism, has become much more permeable, and books are measured by their vitality, their degree of accomplishment, and the fidelity they pay to their own obsessions rather than by the happenstances of genre.”

Read the interview here.

 Ellen Datlow

Veteran editor Ellen Datlow has been working with science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for over thirty years, during which she has edited over sixty anthologies and racked up a number of accolades. We were honored to talk to her about horror as part of our Scary Story Showcase last October:

 ellen datlow“Effective horror explores the truths that humans are loathe to face: death most prominently—the fact that we’re all going to die. The loss of loved ones, losing one’s control, fear of the unknown, pain. These things scare us whether couched in the supernatural or psychological.”

Read the interview here.

 Benjamin Percy

We were thrilled to talk to Benjamin Percy about his recent post-apocalyptic novel The Dead Lands, which reimagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in a world full of water scarcities and mutant animals.

 deadlands cover“ . . . suffice it to say that we’re all nearing a state of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fatigue. Everyone is overly familiar with the way the world ends. The Dead Lands takes advantage of this. There is a super flu, of course, and there is a nuclear apocalypse, of course. This is merely my key in the door, the gateway into my story. The way the world ends is mostly irrelevant. I’m concerned with the way the world is reborn.”

Read the interview here.

Laura van den Berg

The wonderful Laura van den Berg chatted with us about the short story form vs. the novel, the role of research in the writing process, her ever-shifting writing space, and her path to success.

vandenBerg_interview “So I think that’s the thing about publishing: it’s a very rare situation where the views are going to be completely uniform. You know, you don’t need everyone to say yes, and you don’t need everyone to think that the path you’ve chosen is the right path. You just need that one person who sees things in a way that you do and I was lucky enough to find that.”

Read the interview here.

Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender’s magical realist stories have earned her a loyal following—and with good reason. Here, we talk to the acclaimed writer about women in magical realism, her use of this construction, and the power of magic in stories.

BENDER“I think the emotional life is the core and seed of the story—that’s where the story lives and breathes. So the magic is a way to access that, and I will happily use whatever way I can to get to the emotional stuff. For me, for whatever reason, I like to go to it indirectly, and via metaphor, but hopefully not metaphor that’s too easily unpacked.”

Read the interview here.

by Sadye Teiser 

Interview: Daniel Orozco

Daniel Orozco’s Orientation: And Other Stories was published in 2011 by Faber & Faber. The collection’s titular story places the reader in the shoes of a new, unnamed employee on their first day in the office. As the employee is given a tour and the do’s and don’ts of the position (pace your work to fill an eight hour day; never answer the telephone, our guide says), the reader quickly realizes that this workplace is unusual. There’s a man who uses the women’s room, a woman who knows when and how you will die, an omnipresent Unit Manager, and a serial killer. Ask too many questions, though, and you may be let go. The stories found in Orientation: And Other Stories explore the often-murky divide between personal and professional identity.

daniel orozcoA lot of the stories in Orientation: and Other Stories focus a great deal on the workplace, whether it’s a traditional workplace (“Orientation” and “I Run Every Day,” for example) or non-traditional (“The Bridge” and also probably “Orientation”). Where does that inspiration come from?

I’ve come to believe that there’s no greater arena for high drama than the workplace, whether your job is a grocery bagger or an administrative assistant or a test pilot. Everybody’s got a job, and for most people the workplace is a highly regulated environment—you can’t wear what you want, you can’t eat when you want, and you can’t avoid that guy who drives you absolutely nuts (because you work with him, or because he’s your boss). For about a quarter of your adult life, you have to be there, whether you like it or not. Who-You-Are and Who-You-Have-To-Be-At-Work are not always harmoniously aligned, and the tension between those two identities can reveal who you really are. It’s Hemingway’s “grace under pressure,” but instead of drawing a bead on a charging lion or ambushing a cadre of Fascists on a mountain road, you’re dealing with the broken photocopier again, or sneaking in late from lunch. Dramatically, it’s all the same.

Every time I read “Orientation,” I’m most intrigued by the Unit Manager, Matthew Payne, even though I feel that most readers are most interested in Kevin Howard, the serial killer. No one ever sees Mr. Payne and yet he’s always there. I always want to hover at that point of the story and take a peek into his office, but our guide never lets me. Care to give any insight on what might be behind his door?

I have no idea what’s behind the door. All I see is a door that is always closed, with a nameplate on it that reads: Matthew Payne. I went to Catholic school as a child, where the nuns told us that Jesus was everywhere, watching us. He would know if we said his name in vain, or if we masturbated, or if we even thought about masturbating. So, Matthew Payne is like the Jesus Christ of my Catholic boyhood, terrifyingly and creepily unseen, yet all-seeing and all-knowing—the perfect Unit Manager.


Author Interview: Benjamin Percy and The Dead Lands

Benjamin Percy’s newest novel The Dead Lands, out last month from Grand Central Publishing, reimagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in a post-apocalyptic world. Mutant animals roam a barren countryside, water is scarce, and resources are low. An outpost in St. Louis referred to as The Sanctuary is home to a group of survivors who leave the safety of the walled city in hopes of a better future. We sat down with Percy to talk about The Dead Lands and the end of the world. It was the perfect way to conclude our look at the apocalypse in fiction and to honor a kick-ass novel, as Short Story Month continues.

deadlands coverTo begin, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed The Dead Lands. Where did the idea for this book come from? Was the reimagining of Lewis and Clark’s journey there from the beginning or did it come later?

Thanks for reading. Glad you dug it. My mother is a hobby historian and she is obsessed (I’m not exaggerating when I use the word) with Lewis and Clark. So I grew up visiting Fort Clatsop so often that I could have been a historical reenactor. We attended the bicentennial with great fanfare. On weekend adventures — hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, rockhounding — we’d often stop at some historical marker and she’d tell us stories about the expedition.

I always wanted to write about them. Initially I thought I’d recreate their passage and take different friends and family members along for different legs of the journey, and a publisher caught wind of this and tried to bid on it alongside my novel Red Moon. But my wife and I then sat down and figured out the logistics of such an undertaking and she very reasonably said, “That ain’t happening.” So I decided to make some stuff up instead!

A historical novel would have been fun, but there are many already on the shelf. But post-apocalyptic Lewis and Clark — that was a fresh angle — and a way to make the story feel new and relevant and perilous once more.

Oregon appears time and time again in your writing. Was it fun to imagine the state as a post-apocalyptic oasis?

I live in Minnesota now, but I grew up in Oregon and know its geography, history, culture, politics and myths better than anywhere else. That’s why so many of my books are set there, and yeah, it’s always a pleasure to write about, because that way I maintain a kind of dual citizenship: I’m straddling two environments daily. But the Oregon tourism bureau might not be thrilled about this, because I’ve done terrible things to the Pacific Northwest in my fiction.

But this book has geographic scope, since it reaches from St. Louis to the supposed oasis of the Pacific (insert sinister laughter here — since the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow might actually be full of ash and bone).

How did the Lewis and Clark expedition inspire elements of The Dead Lands that aren’t so obvious?

No one should go to the book for a history lesson. You can read the novel without any knowledge of the expedition whatsoever. But if you do know a thing or two, there are many Easter eggs.

I’ve taken liberties with the characters. Lewis was a studious, solitary man in life, but I’ve ramped that up here to make him even more hermetic and genius and bothered by paralyzing depressive episodes. Clark is a woman, and a rogue, a Kirk to Lewis’s Spock, because everyone loves an odd couple. I could keep going — but I don’t want to spoil too much. Suffice it to say that Arron Burr is an American villain, one so many love to hate, a strong advocate of slavery who conspired to make the Louisiana Purchase a separate republic. So I’m playing off that. The general take is this: here you have an infant nation, a new America, and this expedition might be the thing that determines its future.

In addition to a super-flu, The Dead Lands America has been impacted by nuclear war. Exposure to radiation serves as the origin for some strange mutations: sand wolves, large albino bats, and even some extra sensory perception in the characters. It’s a strangely practical explanation for the surreal, which is a large source of conflict in the novel. I’m curious: did you search for a way to explain these mutations or did the idea of a nuclear fallout come first?

First off, I prefer to think of them as human-sized albino bats, thank you very much. “Large” just doesn’t cut it when you hope to make people pee their pants.

The novel is chunked up into sections, each with their own epigraph. The first comes from Neil Gaiman: “All stories are in conversation with other stories.” Now I have a long ranting explanation for this — that involves all the stories I’m swirling together here, most notably the journals of Lewis and Clark — but for now, suffice it to say that we’re all nearing a state of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fatigue. Everyone is overly familiar with the way the world ends. The Dead Lands takes advantage of this. There is a super flu, of course, and there is a nuclear apocalypse, of course. This is merely my key in the door, the gateway into my story. The way the world ends is mostly irrelevant. I’m concerned with the way the world is reborn. And its rebirth is marred by desertification, radiation, new technologies, warring politics . . . and, wait a sec, that sounds a lot like the contemporary US! (more…)