Every once in a while members of FLARE are given a wonderful opportunity to interview and introduce new writers to our readership. Recently we had the chance to do an E-mail interview with Megan Abbott (Dare Me, You Will Know Me) and pick her brain on her journey with writing and specifics about her own stories.
As an author known for writing mysteries, was this genre something reflected in your early writing or discovered later on?
No. I guess I think my work fits more nearly under the crime fiction label, and I have always been interested in true crime—though mostly for the psychology. I’m fascinated by why we act the way we do, the aspects of ourselves we can’t control, how we overcome trauma, how we fight our own demons. Those are the books I was always drawn to (from Shirley Jackson to Joyce Carol Oates) so I guess it makes sense that I ended up writing in that world.
What do you feel is the best skill a writer should develop?
Discipline. It’s the only way it happens. You have to commit, get in the chair every day (or as close as you can) and be willing to write badly for 90% of the time in order to get that 10% that works. There are many, many harder professions, but the particular challenge in writing is it only happens if you’re giving it everything.
What aspect of writing do you find most frustrating and how do you choose to deal with it?
Revising. So often you’re trying to convey something and it just isn’t coming across. But, at a certain point, it’s very hard to read one’s own manuscript, to figure out the problems, to have any distance. It takes practice and ruthlessness.
You write about contemporary feminist topics (such as female sexuality in The Fever) is this something you’re conscious or unconscious of when you are writing a story?
Mostly unconscious. But I think about it in my waking life all the time. It affects everything. When I sit down to write, it probably creeps in naturally. That said, I don’t write from ideology or judgment. When I write, I just want to explore.
Several of your recently published works (The End of Everything, The Fever, Dare Me) feature young women as narrators, what do you feel your story gains from this perspective?
A voice too often ignored, dismissed. I hope that’s changing—-it feels like it might be. When I witness the response, say, to Emma Gonzalez’s powerful voice, I’m hopeful.
Do you want your works to stand on their own or do you want them to thematically build off each other?
Boy, I don’t think about it like that because if I did it might be crippling. I’m sure there are so many connections—they form a map of my obsessions! But I try not to think about that. I just try to let it be.
Erika Meitner is a successful poet who currently teaches at Virginia Tech. She has four published books of poems: Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore, published in 2002, and winner of the 2002 Robert Dana- Anhinga Prize for Poetry. Her second book, Ideal Cities, was a winner of the 2009 National Poetry Series and then published in 2010 by Harper Collins. Erika’s third book is titled, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls, and published by Anhinga Press in 2011. Her fourth book of poems, Copia, was published in 2014 by BOA Editions, and her newest collection, Holy Moly Carry Me, will come out in September of 2018. Erika spoke at Flagler College last month and read a few poems from her previous books. She gave students some insight into how she came to write her poems and her experiences as a writer. I wanted to know more about her poems and her process. She graciously agreed to a Q&A where she delves deeper into life as a poet below:
First, as I mentioned before I really like the idea of “un-poetic” writing, so I was wondering what exactly would you say is un-poetic writing? Further, where did this idea come from?
I wouldn’t say I’m talking so much about ‘un-poetic’ writing so much as the perception among writers and readers that there’s such a thing as un-poetic subject material. I think there are things we often leave out of the poems we’re writing, because we don’t feel they’re worthy of attention or of being in a poem. Sometimes it’s brand names or pop culture or consumer goods. Sometimes it’s technology or mediated experiences (like surfing the web, or posting on social media). Sometimes it’s just an un-scenic place even when we’ve had an experience there (like a gas station bathroom, or the 7-Eleven). Growing up in New York City in the 70’s and 80’s, when the city was much grittier than it is now, definitely skewed my aesthetics towards the broken, the quotidian, and the small moments of cracked or imperfect beauty (and my students sometimes refer to this aesthetic as ‘grit-po’). I also studied and worked in documentary film before I became a poet, which also influenced my aesthetics and the urge to document the things around me as they are, rather than trying to present a glorified or elevated version of them.
I really love your poem, “Wal-Mart Supercenter”, I know you mentioned at the reading that the stories you included came from a google search, but was there anything that happened to you that inspired that poem? How did it come about?
Thanks! I’m so glad you like the poem! I started writing a bunch of Walmart poems because I was spending time there buying diapers and formula and food in bulk, which is what happens when you have kids and live in a relatively rural place. My son would fall asleep in the backseat of the car on the way to Walmart, or other stores, so often the only time I had to write were those half-hour nap snippets when he was in his car seat snoozing and I was in the Walmart parking lot sitting in the driver’s seat pecking out a poem on my phone. Thus my Walmart poems. Also, when I lived in cities where people were pedestrians, I often wrote about the human geography of the city and weird encounters I had randomly. When you don’t live in a city and drive everywhere, the places where those interactions happen are in stores, which are the only communal spaces around here other than public libraries.
You write about the way your sons are seen differently because of the different color of their skin, in your poem about having to buy water guns at Target the day the cop who killed Philando Castile was acquitted. I was really moved by it and I loved the way you were able to conflate those two events. Do you think the concept of race has influenced what you write?
I think it’s impossible for me not to write about race right now–and even if I wasn’t raising one white son and one black son I would most likely be writing about race in some way as an American (and Jewish) woman living in Southern Appalachia in the second decade of the 21st century. I don’t really write about the ‘concept’ of race though; my work deals with very real experiences I’ve had in my community and outside of it with my family as we move through space in our bodies. I also work on larger scale photo-text documentary poetry projects that try to approach social issues in urban environments (Detroit, Cleveland, and now Miami) where race (and more specifically, systemic racism) is certainly a large part of the stories of these places, in conjunction with politics and economics.
I think subject matter evolves as new generations grow up. That said, how do you think young poets and writers in general, can use their experiences as millennials to write different and new poetry?
I think millennial’s are a generation that’s grown up with a very specific relationship to technology and social media, and have lived chunks of their lives in a virtual public connected to others in ways that my generation (Gen X) didn’t. I would love to see more poems that address the ways we all live bits of our lives online; I feel like people are still ironing out SnapChat and Instagram and other forms of social media from their poems. I would also love to see more writers who use Web 2.0 technologies and platforms creatively as storytelling mechanisms–who use the very nature of the mediums themselves to come up with new and innovative ways to make poems and stories, and go beyond memes and photos with text superimposed over them.
Lastly, while I have yet to try and become published, I know that it’s hard and that there is a lot of rejection as well as competition. What advice do you have for aspiring poets and writers who are struggling to find their voice/place? How can they stand out?
I think the flip side to being a media-saturated generation is that often media-driven images, emojis, or other electronic content can replace our personal memories and iconographies–the quirky images and memories and experiences that vary from individual to individual. I think it’s important for aspiring writers to be tenacious, but also to remember to take time away from their phones, screens, televisions, laptops, etc. to experience the unmediated world too, and record it using language that reflects their unique experiences and interactions and observations. How do your friends actually sound when they speak out loud (rather than when they text)? What sounds do you hear when it’s late at night and you’re still up but everyone else is asleep? How would you describe the way the air feels on an early July morning in St. Augustine?
Caitlyn McCrea, poetry editor, interviews two members of the League of Extraordinary Authors: YA author of TheGeneva Project Series, Christina Benjamin, and children’s book author of TheRocket Ship Bed Trip, N. Jane Quackenbush.
Where are you from?
Benjamin: I’m originally from Northeast Pennsylvania. I moved to Florida after I graduated high school to go to Flagler and study art. After Flagler I attended Keystone College and University of Central Florida.
Quackenbush: I was born in upstate New York, but I moved to St. Augustine, FL when I was 5 years old and have been here ever since, with the exception of my college years in West Palm Beach.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Benjamin: I think I’ve always known it. Ever since I was a child I loved telling stories. My dad and I used to have the best time making up stories every chance we got; driving to school, sitting around a campfire, hiking, etc.
Quackenbush: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I went to college and studied the literary greats like Shakespeare, Lord Byron and John Keats. I was in awe of their talent and hoped that if I studied them enough, some of their talent would transfer to me.
What are your books about?
Benjamin: The books I’ve published so far are young adult fiction. They’re about friendship, adventure, courage and self discover, with a little bit of magic and romance mixed in for fun.
Quackenbush: The first book I have written is based on a dream that I had when I was about 4 years old. I dreamed that my bed turned into a rocket ship and I went on a fantastic journey through outer space. In all my books I have a signature style which includes an educational component that most readers are unaware that they are learning. In The Rocket Ship Bed Trip I introduce the young reader to astronomy. My goal is to fuel sweet dreams.
Do you have a specific writing style?
Benjamin: I love Harry Potter, Hunger Games, The Mortal Instruments, and that sort of addictive YA fiction, so I think I was naturally drawn to write a series in that wheelhouse. I figured why not write something that I would love to read? That’s what Stephen King says anyway. I finished the last books in the Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight series all within the same year and was at a loss for what to read next, and that’s ultimately what inspired me to start my own series. I figured that way I could be in charge of the characters, creating the fantastic world they exist in, and I would never have to wonder what happened to them after the series has ended.
Quackenbush: I prefer to write poems, as they seem to write themselves. When I sat down to write The Rocket Ship Bed Trip, it came out so quickly and naturally that it didn’t feel like work at all. At that same time a lot of other poems in the same genre came in a rush that I had to put to paper. I have to say, I love those moments of inspiration. I am currently trying to expand my scope in writing a middle grade chapter book.
What was/is the most difficult part of writing?
Benjamin: Finding the time to actually sit down and do it. In a perfect world, I would live in a little cottage on the water filled with good books, great music, wine, my dog, and my husband, with no distractions of the real world.
Quackenbush: The most difficult part in writing is having the writing look effortless. One of my favorite poets is Robert Frost, and I adored how his poems appeared as if they were waiting for him to combine the words perfectly with the rhyme together forming a perfect body of literary genius while looking so natural.
Are you self-published? If so, how did you start that process?
Benjamin: Yes I’m proud to be a self-published indie author. My first book, Truth, was really just supposed to be for me. It was something to do after my favorite books came to an end. I thought I’d become a writer instead of a reader for a while. I wrote everyday on my lunch break at work and never told anyone I was writing a book. I didn’t even know if I could do it or if it would be any good. But when I finally finished it, I gave it to my husband. He loved it of course, but he’s my husband, he has to say that, right? He’s a very talented graphic designer and after reading it he designed a book cover, researched how to start our own publishing company and then worked with Createspace and Smashwords to format the book into paperback and eBook versions. And as they say, the rest is history. I’ll never forget the day I held the first copy of my book in my hands. I think I may have cried. After going through the whole process, start to finish, I have such a huge respect for authors. So much more goes into publishing a book than I ever would have imagined. I really enjoy being self-published because I’ve been a part of every single step and I’ve learned so much about the business of writing, which in turn makes me a better writer.
Quackenbush: I am self-published. I went to a writer’s conference and learned that I wanted to keep all the rights to my stories. I didn’t want a big company have the right to decide whether my books would be available to the public. I knew it would be harder, but I think my books will become worldwide and I’m really excited to see all the places The Rocket Ship Bed Trip will go.
Why did you form the League of Extraordinary Authors?
Benjamin: Writing can be solitary profession, but I’m a social person, so I really enjoy any time I can get together with other writers or industry professionals. I learn the most from speaking to other talented writers and I love that this is a profession of such creative people. I felt a positive energy when I worked with two special authors in particular; Jaimie M. Engle and N. Jane Quackenbush. The three of us have so much fun together and share the same focus on learning, sharing, and success. Forming a platform where we could work together to share our passion for writing and enrich the lives of young readers through literacy was a natural progression.
Quackenbush: Christina Benjamin, Jaimie Engle and I got together and decided that we could all help one another in areas that each of us was having trouble with. Being an author can sometimes feel lonesome and overwhelming, but when you have a support group, a lot of those fears disappear. Together we are stronger and most importantly we have a lot of fun!
What are you reading now?
Benjamin: I like to read a lot of books at once, so I’m reading Clockwork Princess, Ready Player One and my book Secrets for the millionth time, to make sure that the third book I’m writing meshes.
Quackenbush: I love to read historical fictions. I am currently reading The Outlander Series.
What do you hope to do in future projects?
Benjamin: I’m really big on giving back. I feel so blessed to have been able to follow my dream of being a professional writer. In a way, books have saved me. There has been so many times where I’ve found solace in the pages of a book or in just writing down my own thoughts. I want to share that with as many other people as I can. I’ve recently started a One for One initiative program for the sales of my books. For each book I sell from my website, I plan can donate one. My goal is to give 1000 books to schools, libraries and literacy programs in need. Here is the link if anyone wishes to partake: https://squareup.com/market/thegenevaprojectstore
Quackenbush: I hope to expand my literary style and open myself up to writing more challenging work. It’s hard for me to stay focused, which is why writing poems come so much more naturally than books, but I want to strengthen and grow in my writing.
What is/are your favorite book(s)?
Benjamin: This is always such a hard question. I feel like there’s no one book that I can single out because I’ve been shaped by so many. I love Shakespeare and I think he should get the credit for making me fall in love with literature; A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular. Then there’s J.K. Rowling. I’m so grateful for the trail she has blazed for YA fiction and I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. I also love Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Quackenbush: I love so many books, but some of my favorites are Here be Dragons, Wicked, The Red Tent, World with No End, etc.
What are your thoughts on FLARE? Would you have submitted?
Benjamin: I love FLARE! I would definitely have submitted. I think it’s so important for students to learn about the industry and have a creative outlet that celebrates them in so many diverse ways. Flagler as a whole does a great job of that. I often say that if I had followed my passion for writing at an early age I wonder where I would be now. I didn’t start my first book until I was 31! Start now! There is no better time than right now.
Quackenbush: I think FLARE is an amazing catalyst for artists to have their work displayed. As well as a learning device for students and staff to develop and construct. Flagler College is a big step ahead in areas like FLARE and WFCF. I would absolutely submit my work to FLARE and hope for inclusion with my fingers crossed!
What advice would you give to struggling writers?
Benjamin: Don’t give up and don’t compare yourself to other writers. Everyone’s journey is different; enjoy yours, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Focus on what you love about writing and do more of that. Finding a way to bring myself back to what made me start writing in the beginning always keeps me grounded and brings my writing back to it’s truest form. I love the idea that writing is limitless and that anything I can dream up is possible. Writing is truly the only form of magic that I’ve seen in the world and that’s what I love about it; the magic.
Quackenbush: Don’t write because you want to become famous or because you want to write the next big blockbuster; write because you love it, because you can’t help it, and your reward will come.
Lucian Mattison is the author of Peregrine Nation (The Broadkill River Press, 2014) which won the 2014 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize. His work appears in FLARE, Bodega, The Boiler, Everyday Genius, Hobart, Muzzle Magazine, and Spork, among other journals, and has received Pushcart Prize nominations. He edits poetry for Green Briar Review and Barely South Review. To read more visit lucianmattison.com.
FLARE: Tell us a little about yourself.
Mattison: My mom was from Argentina and my father is from the United States. My father always travelled a lot, he grew up in Alabama and then joined the Navy. We had been moving my whole life, kind of moving around between the U.S., Singapore, and Argentina for as long as I remember.
FLARE: What was that experience like for you growing up?
Mattison: To some extent, it just makes you more adaptable. I never really felt tremendous connection to any one place, so one thing I had to keep doing was making new friends and new homes.
FLARE: Do you think that experience has impacted your writing at all?
Mattison: I mean, of course, I think it does. This first book I just had published was kind of centering around that idea. I’m writing about a place that is a home away from home. Whenever I go back to Argentina, it’s always familiar but always a little foreign. That’s something I’m accustomed to at this point. I think it also helps me to see things from an outsider’s perspective as well, where you’re always kind of on the fringes, but at the same time, a part of it. It just allowed for a more witness-based mentality.
FLARE: What is your source of inspiration?
Mattison: Pablo Neruda is one of those poets who makes things feel effortless, even though it’s really well-crafted and it’s really well thought out. The way he writes makes it seem like it’s off-the-cuff when really he’s been revising and trying, but it just feels effortless, light, and beautiful. I find that very inspirational, and makes me feel like I should be striving to have that same quality to some extent whenever I write.
FLARE: What was it like winning this award for Peregrine Nation?
Mattison: It was a really big shock, actually. I was working on my thesis for my Master’s, and it was actually this manuscript and I was gonna take it into my Master’s year, my third year, but I was kind of sending it out under a different title and it got rejected in a couple of places and it was a long time coming. I’d been working on it for three years. When I first starting working on this series, I was living in Chile, and I was teaching English. They had a lot of riots going on at the time, so it was kind of hard to not write about what you were seeing. Then I started bringing in my family, my experiences in Argentina and abroad, and brought in the concept of being an outsider-inside. That’s where this manuscript came together. It felt really good, I never imagined to leave my Master’s program with a book already, cus that was one of my goals. It kind of just blew me away, honestly
FLARE: What are you working on right now?
Mattison: I’m compiling and sifting through poems that I feel would go best together in another book. Where Peregrine Nation was more memory based, these poems are more idea driven, and less narrative driven.
FLARE: What is your greatest accomplishment?
Mattison: Publishing this book. I had a goal to publish before I finished grad school. Next to graduating, I’d say that’s right up there.
FLARE: Where do you hope to end up?
Mattison: That’s a good question. I don’t really know. I’m moving up to D.C. after school, and will be kind of moving out of academia I think for maybe a year or two, just to kind of position my head on my shoulders a little more stably. When you’re in college, there’s a certain way of thinking and a way the world works, and I kind of want to break out of that. And I want to work on publishing another book. I just want to focus on writing out of academia.
FLARE: If you could be any literary character for a day, who’d you be and why?
Mattison: For a day?
FLARE:For a day. Just to try out their shoes.
Mattison: (laughing) Uhh, hmm, that’s a good question. I recently finished reading this book Death With Interruptions by José Saramago and he portrayed the character of death as the stereotypical hooded figure we think of, but it had a personality and fell in love with this cello player, so maybe that would be an interesting character to embody for a while.
FLARE: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Mattison: I think it’s important to trust yourself. Especially when going into a market that has a lot of people telling you how to write, it’s important to hold onto what makes your writing interesting and unique. Choose your critics and only listen to them so much. The only person who’s going to benefit is you: no one else is writing your writing. Also, READ.
Our featured faculty member of FLARE‘s 2014 Student Edition, Professor Stephen Kampa, talks about “nales,” kung fu, and Dante.
FLARE: Tell us a little about yourself.
This is one of my favorite diary entries from when I was a child, maybe ten or eleven years old: “This weekend is the science fair. I hate the science fair. I hope I win.”
FLARE: How did you get started?
When I was young, I used to write and illustrate little stapled books, and then I’d try to sell them in the front yard. One of them was a short tool reference book. I correctly spelled “hammer,” “screw driver,” the always tricky “wrench,” and then I had a page with a big drawing of a nail and the word “NALE.”
FLARE: Where do you find inspiration? What is your writing process like (what kind of routine do you have, if any)?
Although I lived in Brazil for a year when I was a teenager, I have written very little about it. I have written about the movie Sand Sharks, which stars Brooke Hogan as a marine biologist.
I also watch a lot of kung fu movies. This may explain why I tell my students to revise by saying, “You need to punch that into shape.” I confess I may have an incomplete understanding of the net effect of punching.
FLARE: What are you working on right now?
This interview. Kidding! Dobby Gibson has some lines I love:
“You are the monster of your own campfire story,
and the telling of it
has been your life’s noblest deed.”
I think that’s where I’m headed.
FLARE: Where do you hope to end up?
FLARE: If you could be any literary character for a day, who’d you be and why?
It follows from the last question that I would want to be Dante the Pilgrim (not Dante the Poet) in the Divine Comedy. He may go through hell, and he may feel like he’s stuck in purgatory, but eventually he does make it to paradise.
Find out more about Stephen at his website, stephenkampa.com