A blog about writing, publishing, self-publishing and bookish doings by Roz Morris
Author: Roz Morris @Roz_Morris
Former ghostwriter coming out of the shadows with books of my own. My Memories of a Future Life. Lifeform Three (longlisted for the World Fantasy Award). Ever Rest (finalist in the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize).
Humorous memoir: Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction.
Series for writers: Nail Your Novel.
What's coming next? Get my newsletter https://tinyurl.com/rozmorriswriter
I’m really glad Dave and I kept our DVD player. If you watch movies and boxsets on DVD you get something that isn’t usually available on streamed versions – the extras, with interviews about the making of the piece, or the casting, or the design, or the adaptation for the screen. Sometimes they’re a bit throwaway, sometimes they’re deep and insightful, but all have a sense of creative energy, a love of the project, a pride in the artform, and a sense of a lot of talents coming together.
Publishing a book is like that too. Perhaps there are fewer people involved than on a movie or a TV show, but there’s still a sense of great and noble effort. Well, I think it’s noble.
That’s one of the things I’m talking about in this interview, with satirical and speculative fiction author Andrew Verlaine on his show Publishing Talks.
Andrew is at the beginning of his publishing journey, with a novel scheduled for 2025. We talk about the surprises he might face in the production process, the different experts who contribute to the polish of a published book, like the different trades in a filmed work. We talk about the constructive nature of editing, how a good editor will help you discover your superpowers and also your blind spots – and then, with luck, open your eyes. And about the finicky and fine work of making something as complex and wondrous as a book, which a person will one day read and experience, will keep on their shelf, will buy for a friend as a gift, and might never forget.
With three novels releasing in a 12-month period, Cynthia Newberry Martin is at a real turning point in her life. She began the novels in the 1990s and at long last they’re ready for readers. But she’s already a strong presence in the writing world, thanks to a blog series she started in 2009 – How We Spend Our Days – of essays by writers on their daily lives. The guest list is huge and impressive. Everyone will find at least one of their favourite authors in there – here’s just a smattering of mine – Alexander Chee, Cheryl Strayed, Jane Smiley, Dani Shapiro.
My first question was this: how did the blog series start?
Shortly after I created my blog, which was called Catching Days after the Annie Dillard quote ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’, I wanted to include guest posts. And I wanted them to be linked, not random. For the first 20 years of my life, I was obsessed with French, and I loved a column in French Elle magazine about days in the lives of women. So I thought, what about days in the lives of writers? I called it How We Spend Our Days, also after the quote.
I was studying with the writer Pam Houston at the time, and I asked her to kick things off. That was August of 2009. I’ve published an essay every month since then.
Dipping into a few, I find them supportive and honest about the mysterious act of creating a book from slippery thoughts and urges. What emerges is a belief in the artistic process, even when the writer themselves is uncertain where they’re going with an idea. Taken together, they’re a testament to persistence, the enduring nature of the artistic vocation and the drive to see more in the everyday.
Stop me babbling – you’ve seen a lot more of them than I have. What do you take from the essays?
Babble on, I agree! I love how the writers invite us into their lives, how they at the same time demystify and honour this thing called the writer’s life.
I think the details and obsessions mentioned go toward giving us the confidence to be who we are. And the inspiration is endless —it’s okay to not write every day, to write in the middle of the night, to think about the possibility of a baby, for writing to be out of the question.
Tell me about your most recent release, Love Like This.
Love Like This is the story of a marriage. After 22 years with children at home, Angelina has been counting on the empty house to rediscover who she is, but it turns out her husband Will has been counting on something else. Nine days into their child-free life, he announces he’s been fired and is home to stay. But Lucy is the character who steals the show, I think. She gives the novel its heart.
Why did you choose that title?
I have zero memory about where it came from. It seems to have been there from the beginning. I remember liking that the word ‘love’ could be understood as a noun or a verb – that the title might be imploring readers to love like this OR it might be describing a kind of love.
The cover is so intriguing and striking. What does it enshrine for you about the novel?
Hats off to Jessica Bell for the cover. Love Like This has four main characters, and each has a sort of animal association except for Will who is totally about the house. The pink eyes were all Jessica and brilliant. Angelina so wants to be seen. And I just love the black.
In your work, what themes or curiosities do you return to or worry over?
I’m obsessed with time to myself, as in I never have enough. I grew up one of five, and when I went away to college I requested a single room on my freshman hall. So my main characters struggle with that push-pull between the self and the other — alone vs together, leaving vs staying, here vs gone, freedom vs love. Marriage and long-term relationships put the squeeze on time to oneself and are the perfect vehicles for digging into this.
On your bio page, you describe your ‘crazy years’, when you were working as an editor on several literary magazines, studying for a postgraduate degree and participating in a writing group. Tell me more about the craziness. How long ago was it?
That was mainly 2010 and 2011. It was insane. On so many nights I sat in the corner of a dark room while the whole family watched TV or a movie. I could barely see but was trying to be there and also get my work done, editing one thing after another as fast as I could and with a packet of writing and commentary due every month. I would leave a couple of days after Christmas for residency. I missed New Year’s Eve three years in a row and my anniversary and my youngest’s birthday two years in a row.
Of course, I loved all of it, but my migraines were coming more often, and I was stress eating with no time to exercise. At the beginning of 2012, I had to start saying no.
What is less crazy about your life now?
Actually, with three books coming out in a 12-month period, it’s not less crazy now. Good point.
I’m going to leap on another intriguing line from your bio… a residency at Ragdale, a playroom, a tower and a shower of pages. Do explain.
Ragdale is a wonderful artistic space, peaceful and inspiring. A former country estate complete with prairie, just north of Chicago. The original house and barn were built around 1900. Each of the rooms has a name. The room I stayed in was called the Playroom.
Aha.Playroom with a capital P.
It had steps up into a cupola where you could look out over the grounds. I would work up there, and the work I was doing was revision—I was actually finishing Love Like This. When I was done with a page, I would wing it down the steps with a satisfying flick of the wrist.
Actually, there are so many lines in your bio that I enjoyed. This resonated personally: ‘I want to figure out how to be in the world as I am in my head.’ I always say I’m wild person trapped in a cautious one. Tell me how you’re living on the outside as loudly as you are on the inside.
Before I started writing, I was private and all closed off. Now I’m private but opening up about it. I still think lots of things I don’t say. So much happens in my head. But before, I was trapped up there, tight, guarded. With writing I’m letting the bridge down. I escape onto the page and then into the world. And the more events and interviews I do, the more I speak. It’s a process.
You have another novel coming out soon, The Art of Her Life, which tackles this idea of inner life versus outer – a character who lives more in the world of art than the here and now of family.
The Art of Her Life was the first novel I ever wrote. I started it in the late 1990s when I had a house full of children. The main character Emily needs a lot of time to herself, but there are her two children who need her and the man she loves who wants more from her. Now that I think about it, the world of art was Emily’s starting place for getting out of her head and into the world. And as the paintings and words and life of Henri Matisse swirl around her… well, I don’t want to spoil the story.
I haven’t yet given you the chance to talk about your novel Tidal Flats… let’s do that now!
Tidal Flats was actually the fourth novel I wrote, although it was the first one to be published. At the time I started it, my last child had just gone to college, and I was no longer chained to the house—whoops, I meant to say, I could travel more. I began to spend a week a month in Provincetown.
The novel turned out to be about a young couple, and the big question that spilled onto the page was whether two people who want different things from life could make marriage work. Cass wants a husband who comes home at night, but Ethan’s work takes him to Afghanistan for weeks at a time. Ethan wants children but Cass does not. How can they make it work?
You also write short stories and essays. How do you decide what deserves short treatment, and fiction treatment?
Someone asked me this question at an event a few weeks ago. The first thing I’ll say is that if I have a point, I write an essay. I had to learn this the hard way. That novel is still in a drawer.
The second thing is, I really don’t write short stories any more. The last one I tried turned into Love Like This, and I only started that as a story because I was determined not to write any more novels because they took too long, and I couldn’t seem to get them published. When I feel like all my characters have so much to say and that I can move in any direction, it’s a novel. When I feel floors and walls and ceilings, it’s a short story.
Was anyone in your family a writer or other kind of creative? How did writing start for you?
No one I know of. We were all super left-brained, except for one sister eight years younger than me. I was organised, a list-maker, good at languages. My parents encouraged me in all these activities.
The first 20 years of my life were all French all the time—I learned it, spoke it, taught it, lived it. The second 20 were practising law and raising a family. All the language and law were easy and grew my left brain three sizes. While I’m sure a certain amount of language proficiency was good for creative writing, my right brain/creative side was the size of a peanut.
When I was pregnant with child number three, my family life ate my legal career. While I’d always been a reader, for the years I stayed home with the kids, reading became a lifeline to the outside world. Fast forward six years, when child number four was two years old, and I started to have a few minutes to myself. I thought about going back to practising law. But I didn’t want to do that any more. I wanted to do what they did. I wanted to create magic. I wanted to become a writer.
That is so lovely. What magic are you making at the moment?
Temporarily nothing. All my time is going toward launching the two new books into the world. But last May, when it was time to start developmental edits on The Art of Her Life and then on Love Like This, I was two years into a new novel called The Glove Factory. I currently have a self-imposed deadline to get back to it the Tuesday after Labour Day. When I last worked on it, The Glove Factory was about a librarian turned private investigator (married and divorced three times) who returns to the Cape Cod town where she used to live — which leads her on a quest for the place of the past in the present and the need to make peace with all her past selves.
You’re launching three books in short succession, books you’ve been working on since the 1990s. That’s almost a new phase of life.
I decided I needed to celebrate big-time. I wanted to do something to support indie bookstores and spread the word about other books from indie presses. Indie publishers are great, right? For most of them it’s a labour of love, not profit, which means they have little to no funds to get the word out. So I decided I’d visit at least one bookstore in every state to talk with readers. Not just about my book but also about the book of a local author also published by an indie press. That’s 50 bookstores, 50 writers, 50 books. And these indie-published books are so good! You can find more info about the tour plus the list of books I’ve read and photos here.
When a message pops into your inbox and you think: I know that name. Didn’t I meet him years ago when I was speaking at a self-publishing conference?
I did. And he was still writing and publishing, and building a body of work. His name is Harrison Hickman. He recently started a blog and asked to interview me.
I love how writing is a long game. That years can pass, and a person you met on a creative afternoon pops out of the ether and says ‘Hi, I’m still here, I still do this. I’m working my groove, making my stuff. Let’s talk.’ Isn’t that wonderful?
Last month I released the audiobook version of Ever Rest, my third novel. All creative collaborations bring surprises. There are things we’re glad we did and things we’re glad we didn’t do. Here are the lessons learned.
Meet my narrator
My narrator was Sandy Spangler, who narrated my other two novels. Sandy is a longtime friend who designs computer games, but I didn’t know she had also trained as a voice actor. In 2014 I had a generous sponsorship offer from Amazon’s ACX to make the audiobooks of my first two novels, but couldn’t find a suitable narrator – you can read about the struggles here. Then I discovered Sandy could do it. She was perfect.
We talked about doing Ever Rest if I could get another sponsor. And, late last year, I did. (You know who you are and… thank you.)
So if you want to know how an audiobook is made, here’s the complete guide.
How do you get the audiobook to customers? You need a sales platform or distributor. I chose Findaway Voices. It reaches a huge range of retailers and libraries and has a good rating from the Alliance of Independent Authors watchdog. When my ACX contract expired for My Memories of a Future Life and Lifeform Three, I moved the books to Findaway.
If you don’t already have a narrator, Findaway has a process for putting narrators and authors together.
There are two possible ways to make a book with Findaway. You can upload a finished set of files, or you can use Findaway’s author/narrator portal to share and approve files. There’s a small fee for this. There’s no fee if you upload a finished book.
Sandy and I decided that, as we’d already worked together well and were used to working in creative teams anyway, we could figure out our own sharing and approval system. I have a Dropbox subscription so we used that for sharing files.
Here’s one we made earlier.
Set up your system and stick to it obsessively
You need to keep track of where each file is in the recording and approvals process. Is it waiting to be reviewed? Does it need corrections? Is it passed for final production?
I created a set of folders in Dropbox.
For Roz to approve
Corrections for Sandy
Pickups for Roz to approve
Passed by Roz
Final mastered files ready for upload
This is very bossy, but Ever Rest has 86 chapters. We needed to stay completely in control of where everything was. Also, I thrive on control and detail.
So many weird names
All audiobooks need pronunciation guides. Ever Rest has a really chewy vocabulary. There are Nepalese place names. Argentinian place names. Mountaineering equipment (karabiner: where does the stress go? KaraBEEner? What vowel sound? KAHRaBINer?)
None of this mattered when the words were shapes in a reader’s mind. Now, there were pitfalls galore. Sniggers or scorn if we got it wrong.
I wrote a pronunciation guide, using phonetic spellings and links to YouTube videos.
Closer to home, there was another troublesome name: the Long Mynd, a hill in Shropshire. The local pronunciation is ‘minned’, not ‘mind’. On the page, it looks like it could be ‘mind’ and I wanted the reader to feel both versions. At times, this was an important resonance, so how would we handle it in the narration? I added some lines to the text to make the reader aware. Then Sandy, in her narration, judged perfectly when to say ‘mind’ and when to say ‘Mynd’. It’s a joy when your actor is so in tune with the book.
Style of narration
Our next task was to establish the style of narration. How fast should it be read? How emotional should the reading be?
Sandy sent samples at different speeds and emotional registers. I’m glad we did this, instead of plunging straight in, because the book didn’t work as we expected.
At first we kept it low key because the prose has a lot of emotion. That approach is good for some audiobooks and lets the writing do the work, but Ever Rest sounded flat. So Sandy went the other way and it came alive – a rich, expressive reading that we could dial up and down for the different characters and tones.
Once we had the energy and emotion, we thought about the space between the paragraphs. When I was writing, I used paragraph spacing very precisely as a poetic device. I realised as I listened that we sometimes needed a longer gap between paragraphs to let a moment settle. Sandy gave me several versions and we found the perfect paragraph pause.
It’s essential to tackle these questions at the start. Even if you’re not used to directing actors or listening critically to audio, you’ll have a feeling when something is off. You might not know what it is, but discuss it with your narrator. If you make a suggestion that’s dumb, the narrator might have a good solution to the problem. Listen to your gut and discuss any concerns as early as possible, before you’ve got a heap of chapters you’re not happy with.
We had found the novel’s style and voice.
Leave room for the reader: 1 Regional accents
One of the characters, Elza, has an Australian accent. We wondered: should Sandy do that?
My instinct was no. And anyway, if we’re getting picky, all the characters have accents. Elza’s is the most striking, as she’s Australian, but another has an East London twang. Another has Shropshire, probably with layers of Nepal, where he’s lived. Another is French.
But accents can be intrusive. And in an audiobook, the narrator doesn’t need to ‘do’ the characters’ voices to make us feel their reality. Their presence is so much more than accent. Their natures are expressed through word choice, thoughts, feelings and reactions, especially when they’re pushed out of their comfort zones. What makes them real is their inner life.
We wondered, though, if Elza might need different treatment because characters occasionally mention her Australian intonation. Her boyfriend, Elliot, talks about the ‘amused lilt of her accent’. What should we do about that? We certainly don’t want Crocodile Dundee. Perhaps an upward inflection, just on the preceeding line, which is a very Australian characteristic?
I’ll leave it to you, I said to Sandy.
When I listened to that chapter, Sandy read those lines exactly the same as the rest of the text. They worked perfectly.
Leave room for the reader: 2 Song lyrics
Ever Rest is a novel about a rock band, Ashbirds. Where there are bands, there are songs. So how should we read the lyrics?
Did they need a melody?
I did have ideas of some of the melodies. They came as I wrote the lines. But I never intended to share them with the reader.
As usual, Sandy made a sound judgement. She read them with a light sense of rhythm, as though they were lines of poetry, to let the listener imagine as much or as little melody as they liked.
Once you’ve made a decision that feels right, you realise what the wrong decision would have done. To add melodies might make the songs feel less serious. It would break the spell of the reader’s personal version, what they were imagining.
I had an example of this at a recent book event. Readers asked me who was the real-life original of the band, Ashbirds. Absolutely nobody agreed with my version. Some thought Ashbirds were heavy rock. That wouldn’t work for me because I mostly dislike guitars – cries of horror from some readers. My Ashbirds would be a bit Peter Gabriel, with his intricate samples. A bit Massive Attack with their soulful synths and beats. A bit Pink Floyd with their introspective darkness. A bit late Police, seething with anger. A bit Simon and Garfunkel, with their voices that sounded like one.
Howls of disagreement from everyone, who all had their own Ashbirds.
That’s the value of not saying too much, not adding too much.
Big lesson: in voicing the book, you must leave room for the reader.
Oh dear I forgot to mention… words I invented
As we worked, we realised I left some important info out of my pronunciation guide.
Some characters had unusual names that could be pronounced in several ways. Paul Wavell… was he WAYvell or WaVELL? said Sandy. It wasn’t important, but it held Sandy up while she wondered which I wanted.
Also, band names. Ever Rest is a complete ecosystem of rock bands. I had such fun inventing names that looked great on the page. Sandy had to figure out how to say them.
‘Roz, about Vidalvine. Veedal Vine or Vyedal Vine?’
‘The rap star Hobemian. Hoe-BEM-ee-an? Hoe-beh-MY-en? Hee-beh-MEE-en? Rhymed with ‘bohemian’?
Big lesson: add your made-up names to the pronunciation guide. I’m looking at you, fantasy and sci-fi authors, and absolutely everyone else too. We all invent names. Your narrator doesn’t need to play guessing games. They already have enough to do (see below).
Oh dear I also forgot to mention…
Some English place-names.
Sandy is American, so names that were familiar to me were not familiar to her. The London region of Holborn. The Yorkshire town of Scarborough, which is not Scarburrow.
Even if your narrator speaks the same variety of English as you, you might want to add pronunciation notes for any name that has right and wrong options, or options that indicate the character is local. For instance, Shrewsbury – locals call it ‘Shroo’ and everyone else calls it ‘Shreau’.
Clicks and repeats
The chapters read beautifully, and occasionally I glimpsed the hard work under the polish. In one chapter, Sandy accidentally left an outtake where she was surprised by a line of adjectives. I could hear her faltering as her brain said, blimey, when does this sentence end? Then I heard a couple of hard clicks, her code for a retake. A breath, she repeated the line, back in the flow, perfectly inflected.
Big lesson: when listening back, stay alert for moments that have been accidentally left in. Every hour of finished recording takes several hours of preparation, recording and editing. Mistakes can happen.
I discovered only one such instance in the entire book, which is a tribute to Sandy’s careful work, but you don’t realise what can go wrong until it does. Watch for outtakes!
When you write a big book, it’s big work
This audiobook took a long time. Eighty-six chapters, about 110,000 words. It was a huge undertaking. Sandy remarked that whereas she’d usually take four to six hours per finished hour of work, she was taking six to eight.
We discussed why this was. The amount of dialogue? The shifting tonality of the different scenes? The changing narrators? All of these gave Sandy a huge range of emotions to express, sometimes all in one chapter. The book took me, as the writer, seven years and 23 drafts (here’s a post about the seven steps of a long-haul novel). Sandy had to digest that complexity in just a few passes.
Sandy tells me she often recorded several versions of a line, then decided later which to use.
‘I did this very often with dialog. As a reader you can get to the end of a character’s sentence before you realise that you have read it with the wrong tone, or sometimes even the wrong character voice. Even if you aren’t doing strong voice differences such as accents, a well-written character has their own communication style and when reading aloud you want to keep that consistent. Or sometimes I would get to the end of a conversation and decide the energy or pacing of the exchange felt wrong, so I would do it again. The majority of the time the later version was the better one, like a tiny rehearsal followed by a performance. This book had a lot of intense dialog, which made it especially challenging.
‘I also recorded multiple versions of the more dramatic story passages whenever it felt necessary in order to get the emotion across – or at the end of a chapter. For those I always recorded multiple takes to sum up the energy of the moment. I feel words followed by silence need to hang in the air just right.’
In case you’re wondering what takes all the time.
The preparation showed. I remember when Sandy presented the final chapters. ‘That argument really took it out of me,’ she said. ‘I kept wanting to scream at her.’ This was exactly what I needed the reader to feel. And the pent-up pressure comes through in the performance.
Endmatter– to record it or not?
Ever Rest has a discography after the final chapter. We wondered: should we record it? Several readers told me they’d enjoyed it as an unexpected bonus. But it was devised for the page, not for the ear.
Sandy recorded it. It didn’t work. We didn’t include it.
Ever Rest also has the usual endmatter. Acknowledgements, a brief piece about the author, teasers for my other books. We decided not to record them. On the printed page they’re nice as a leave-taking. But read out, in the voice of the story, which is so intimate, they would be jarring.
That’s just my opinion. You may think differently about your book.
Titles and other bits
Audiobooks need various official bits of start and end matter. The title, a copyright notice etc. To make this simple, Findaway Voices suggests a format that’s accepted by all the retailers. This is the recommendation for endmatter:
This has been [Title],
Written by [Author Name],
Narrated by [Narrator Name],
Copyright [Year of Manuscript and Name of Rights Holder], Production Copyright [Year of Audiobook Production] by [Rights Holder]
The audiobook cover has to be square, so I pulled up my design file for the paperback and prepared to tweak. I saw this, the record sleeve visible in its entirety, before I cropped it to book proportions. (See the blue outline.)
Gasp. When I was designing the cover, I dearly wanted to use all the record sleeve. If only the book could be square. Now it could be. Did I dare? It would be quite a departure from the actual cover. Did that matter? And the titling would be small. Did that matter? It might not. The sales platforms would show the title and author anyway.
I put it to my Facebook friends.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, they said. It’s unusual. It’s got impact. Do it.
So I did. I also added the rosette for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize.
Choosing a sample for the sales page
The sales platforms give readers a sample, as they do with ebooks. For ebooks it’s automatic – the beginning of the book. For audiobooks, you get to choose an excerpt.
With choice comes… dithering.
We deliberated about the sample for all the time we were making the book.
There are seven POV characters. Who gets to be on the sample? Will listeners think the book is only about that person? There were many chapters that seemed to transmit the book’s themes and dilemmas, or so I thought, as the author. What would someone think if this was their first taste of the book? I found it impossible to tell, I was too close.
There were some chapters that worked well as standalones but were far too long – the limit was 5 minutes.
Eventually I chose one, which was an important interior struggle for one of the main characters.
Nooooooooo, said Husband Dave. It won’t be memorable enough because it’s so interior. Can you find something where two characters meet or do something weird?
When all the content was correct, Sandy did her post-production work, then messaged when there was a complete set of files in the Dropbox folder, ready for me to upload.
Then came an orgy of checking. I double-checked I had all the chapter files, and the beginning and end credits. As there were 86 chapter files I checked them twice. If one was missing, now was the time to know, not when a hugely stressful error message came in from Findaway. Or from a reader.
I uploaded the files. Immediately we had a formatting glitch. However, Findaway’s help pages are so clear that I was able to discover the reason, told Sandy, she sorted it out and sent the files back to me.
Comforting note – Findaway’s help pages are really good. Their help team is also very responsive.
I checked again I had all the files. Any time you’ve done a mass upload, download or anything, something could go missing. You can never check too many times. It’s always worth it.
When I uploaded the novel, I saw its length for the first time. A whole 11 hours, 45 minutes. Again, no wonder it took a while.
When you upload the files, Findaway Voices suggests a retail price and a library price according to the book’s length. I saw no reason to argue! You can set discount pricing for launch offers and generate codes for review copies.
A few nailbiting days while Findaway did some technical checks of their own. Then hurrah – we passed. Findaway has a page with all the retail links. There are loads of them, as there are with ebooks. I have a universal link for each of my titles via Books2Read, and hurrah it as a section for audiobooks.
I also updated pages on my website and my newsletter welcome sequence, to let people know the audiobook is available. Now I keep coming across other random mentions on my website and blog that need updating.
Note for next time – make a comprehensive list of links or pages that need updating whenever I have a new release. Try to streamline where possible. We live and learn.
Those audiobook lessons
Set up a workflow process and stick to it obsessively.
Create a pronunciation guide – any names and words you’ve made up, technical terms, foreign words and names.
Do a trial run to establish pace, level of emotion and pauses between paragraphs.
Look out for instances where important resonance might not translate. Perhaps adjust the text – remember mind and Mynd.
Discuss a policy about accents, unusual text like song lyrics but remember less is more.
Leave room for the reader!
Get your cover adjusted – and perhaps explore exciting possibilities that weren’t possible in the paperback or ebook edition.
Watch out for repeated sections and other kinds of outtake.
Check and recheck everything madly.
Make it easy for people to find your new audiobook – update your buy links and any pages or newsletter materials that mention your books.
Very quickly… The audiobook of Ever Rest is available!
Immense thanks to my narrator Sandy Spangler, who voiced my text with such care and sensitivity, and to Talitha and Jack whose generous sponsorship made this production possible. I’m incredibly lucky to have you all.
Here’s something to think about. Around 97% of the time you ever spend with your parents will be before you are 18 years old.
Maybe you’ve already heard this statistic, and apparently there’s more than one variation. But I heard it just this week. Dave heard it first, told me.
Then, after a moment’s marvelling, we thought about it properly. Of course. That period 0-18 is so intensive. It’s even obvious.
But still, we were flabbergasted, and so we told friends, who marvelled also, and so did we, all over again. Then we all talked ourselves through the facts.
This is one of the things art can do. We all live on the same planet, and we tread through the same constants of life, and there’s nothing new under the sun, blah blah, but at the same time, there is. There are inventive people, billions of us, with language and paintings and poems and crazy, curious hearts and minds.
Here are a few of my favourite things in writing that keep my faith in the concept of originality. (Tell me yours in the comments, if you feel so inclined.)
1 Narratives that go backwards.
I’ve loved backwards narratives ever since I read that Peter Ustinov wrote a play that opens with the characters jaded and faded, then they age backwards into bright young things, and the audience is overwhelmed by the great tragedy of time passing. Another example is Sarah Waters with The Night Watch, where the characters are seen at four stages of World War II. And my favourite example is Martin Amis with Time’s Arrow, which is the life of a concentration camp doctor, from death to birth. Reversing the chronology is a devastatingly rich device. The ugliness of the Holocaust is turned around as victims are drawn down out of the clouds, and sent into the world healthy.
2 Novels with peculiar and powerfully metaphorical worlds.
Kevin Brockmeier’s Brief History Of The Dead, where there are two main settings – our world now, and the afterlife, where people stay until no one who knows them is left alive. When all of the Earth’s population is killed except for one woman, everyone disappears from the afterlife except for the people who have met her. It raises so many ideas about memory and the traces we leave on others. Your takeaway, if you have read it, will probably differ, and that’s exactly what a metaphor should do. And it will stay with you from that day on, as part of your thinking.
3 Personal essays, memoirs and other creative non-fiction.
Whether it’s a big adventure or a humdrum journey, I love a writer who can take me on a personal quest. Jean Hannah Edlestein’s This Really Isn’t About You, about grief and inherited cancer. Alexander Masters’s A Life Discarded, 148 Diaries Found In A Skip. Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me. A quest can be anything you like. Anything that has meaning can illuminate a new truth for us all.
4 A particular kind of creative non-fiction – idiosyncratic travel writing.
I have shelves of books by writers who’ve taken the road less travelled. Waterlog by Roger Deakin, a swim through the British Isles. Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein, a journey at the sea end of the River Thames. Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital is, perhaps the opposite – a road that is well travelled indeed. He takes an epic walk around one of the UK’s biggest motorways, a place that thousands of people travel every day in an oblivion of speed. Iain Sinclair walks it step by step, finds what is there when you look closely and slowly, feels the vibes of history and the places that were there before and have disappeared under concrete. His sensibility creates a new M25 for us. If you really want to think about things that have been on this planet, under your feet, for a long, long time, read Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. (Keep some chocolate handy for the chapter about utter darkness.)
This is the artistic nature. We are people on a constant journey of discovery. We can say, look at this. It’s been here all along, but if I talk about it in just this way, I can reinvent it. It might become a whole book, or just a poem, or just a line, or even a number.
So go out. Follow your curiosity. There is plenty new under the sun.
Kate Brandt likes her work to pose the biggest, deepest questions. She’s a shortform writer (essays, travel writing and short stories) but when she embarked on a novel she knew she’d found her instrument. It allowed her, she says, the luxury of ‘creating a world without having to fit what I have to say into a shorter form’.
I like my writing to go deep. I use writing to pose and puzzle out the questions I ask myself in life — who are we, and what are we doing here. Not too long ago, I went to a lecture of a literature professor I had in college –Lee Schlesinger. Lee spoke in that lecture of ‘the enhanced weirdness of the universe’. I want my writing to reflect that weirdness.
I love that! I think I’ve always looked for enhanced weirdness too.
I’ve struggled with depression most of my life, so the question for me throughout the writing of my novel Hope for the Worst was: what do we do with our pain?
You describe Hope for the Worst as ‘informed by experiences of Tibetan Buddhism, magic, self-delusion, desire, despair and healing’, as well as your own travels in Tibet. How do they combine into one story?
There are different kinds of magic. One kind of magic is the it-can’t-be-true kind of magic we see stage magicians produce—rabbits are pulled out of hats; women are cut in half, but live. But there is another kind of magic also, which is the magic of being enchanted by someone.
We all know what it is to fall in love–how the world shifts and everything glows and seems to have a deeper meaning. There’s a poem by a Polish poet that reads something like this: Now that you’re gone,/a glass of wine is just a glass of wine again. That is the kind of magic I wanted to capture in Hope for the Worst, which is really about passion and the way it lifts us higher than we’ve ever been, but can also drop us into free fall from a great height.
In the novel, Ellie, who is in her 20s, gradually falls in love with her much-older Buddhist teacher Calvin. Ellie is at a low point in her life—quite disenchanted by what she finds in the capitalistic frenzy of 1980s New York City. She is also carrying emotional trauma from the breakup of her family, and as a result, she is leery about humanity in general. Calvin seems like exactly what she needs —he is shiny and distracts her from the emptiness of her life, and he also seems to have the answers to all the puzzles she hasn’t been able to solve.
When Ellie is later rejected by Calvin, it’s a catastrophe for her. In the end, it’s her women friends who not only help her heal, but also help her realize that we have to save ourselves.
The title has quite a twist.
The title is an ironic twist on the notion of tantra. Most Westerners think of tantra in the sense of tantric sex, but a definition that I have heard is ‘everything in the service of enlightenment’. This means that you don’t shy away from the ugly aspects of life—anger and despair. Rather, you learn to use them as energy for transcendence. In the story, Ellie’s life comes to a point where it really feels like it couldn’t be worse. The only hope is that she’s hit bottom – there’s no place to go but up.
Are you a practising Buddhist? Or anythingelse-ist?
I’m very serious about Buddhism. It is my go-to for answers and my belief system. I’ve studied, read many books, and had certain experiences that have helped me realize, rather than just conceptualize, aspects of Buddhist philosophy. But when it comes to actual practice, I am half-assed at best. I do try to meditate 15 minutes every day, and I’ve been to one short retreat, but I’m no yogi, unfortunately.
You took an MFA. What did you gain from that?
I completed an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. I was 35, and most of the other students in the program were in their 20s, so I didn’t fit in with many of them. The MFA gave me the time to write, and also gave me the chance to meet one-on-one with teachers, which was really helpful to me.
To be honest, I don’t always find writing workshops helpful. There are 15 people sitting around a table, and each of them gives you feedback that seems to contradict the feedback of others. Also, these people may not yet be experienced writers, and have their own agendas. Most valuable for me were the one-on-one meetings with teachers who were experienced writers themselves, and felt no competition with me. I learned some valuable lessons from my teachers there—Joan Silber, Kathleen Hill and Myra Goldberg—and I’m very grateful.
In the end, what was most transformative was the friends I made there. We’ve stayed friends, and we now have a writer’s group that I simply cannot imagine my life without. These are women I have grown through decades with, sharing marriages, the births of children, and various catastrophes like cancer and divorce. They know me as well as or better than I know myself, and I can trust them with my work and my not-always-confident self.
When did you decide to take your writing seriously?
I first started to write when I was backpacking around the world in 1986-87. There were so many moments when time seemed to stop, and I wanted to capture those moments and feelings. I kept a journal of my experiences, and when I returned, I kept writing.
What I’ve realised over the years is that writing is a necessity for me. I’ve mentioned that I’ve often suffered from depression. Writing was, and is, an escape, and I take it seriously because I want what I write to be worth reading.
What writers have steered your style or opened your eyes?
I suppose Joan Didion has influenced me, as she has so many. For this book, I would name Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder as models for this kind of story — you go someplace far away, and it changes you.
Was anyone in your family a writer?
My father is a writer. He’s been a huge influence on who I am. When I came home from elementary and middle school, I would go up to his study and he would sit in an armchair and read aloud to me from the classics, while I lay on the rug underneath. When I got older, he would slip typewritten poems by Wallace Stevens under my door, and give me books to read. He taught me the joys of the life of the mind, and the way that the world of books could be an escape and a refuge.
But we have also had a rocky relationship ever since I was 14. I saw first hand the impact that writerly ambition can have on loved ones, and have consequently tried to distance myself from the egoistic, compare-myself-to-other-writers aspect of writing.
You’re also a teacher in adult literacy. Is that something you’ve always done?
My entire adult working life has been spent in the field of adult literacy. I fell into it by accident, but immediately realised how lucky I was to have happened on to it. People treat each other like human beings. Imagine that, in a workplace.
Teaching is a wonderful complement to writing, because it’s creative, but in a different way from writing. And it always gives back. I’ve been teaching since 1990, and I am very fortunate to work with some of the most creative and dedicated co-workers you could wish for, learning along with them, and with the adult students who pass through our classrooms.
Of course, my favorite aspect of the job is teaching writing. My students are mostly immigrants and the working poor. It’s pretty much a given that they have been through multiple traumas. Their stories are very moving, and I feel privileged to help them get those stories out.
What are you working on next?
Nothing. And I’m very depressed about it. It’s been very difficult to finally finish a 10-year project, and then start all over. I’m trying to coax myself gently into being a beginner again.
Are you happiest writing or revising?
Writing is that fantastic flow experience when every word seems to come on its own and you think you’re a genius. It’s wonderful, but to me, revision is queen. I always ask visual artists: is there a point at which you can no longer save a painting or drawing? I am so grateful that, with writing, you can always go back to the drawing board.
I revised this novel extensively. When I look back through my old Word documents, I chuckle because the names of the documents are increasingly desperate. There’s ‘If at first you don’t succeed’, ‘Try, Try, Try’ and my favourite, ‘Ahhhhh’. To me, trying to figure out how the parts of a story need to fit together is like struggling with a Rubik’s cube.
What’s your process?
My process is to write the best draft I can, then give it to my writer’s group and get feedback. Those friends are my eyes, and help me see the story differently when I can’t see it clearly myself for the life of me. This was a long process, and there were times when I doubted whether I could pull it off, but they believed in me and kept me going.
Early bird or night owl?
I’m a morning writer. I think I’ve heard that morning writers are analytical writers, while night writers are intuitive.
What’s on your writing desk?
I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but most of the time I write sitting up in bed.
Five books you’d save if your house was on fire:
The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer. My father gave me this book when I was in my teens, and I still love it. Zimmer was the less well-known teacher of Joseph Campbell, and his writing about Eastern religion and philosophy was formative for me.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Magic! This may be the only book I’ve ever read twice.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel, by Suzanne Clarke. Magic!
Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey. When I read this book, I saw what could be done with the epistolary form.
One Night Two Souls Went Walking by Ellen Cooney. Such grace!
What’s description for? I’ve been working with an author and one of her issues was her use of description.
Is the purpose of description to show the reader what something looks like? The setting, for instance?
Yes, partly. But there’s a lot more it can do.
My author wrote detailed paragraphs about a cafe the characters visited, the food they ordered. When the characters went for a bike ride in the country, there were long paragraphs about the scenery. We were definitely ‘there’ – a guidebook couldn’t have done it better. But the descriptions were flat. Something was missing.
The reader of a novel doesn’t want a guidebook. In a novel, description can perform another important function, besides showing us around. A novel is an experience, usually through a character’s consciousness, and description is one of the ways to involve us in their internal world.
Good description isn’t simply a list of stuff. It’s things the viewpoint character is noticing because they are important in the moment, things that echo a character’s mood or anxieties or the problems they’re grappling with.
Here’s an important question to ask when writing description. What do your viewpoint characters notice and why?
Sitting in my study, right now, I notice the bookshelves need dusting. That’s annoying, but every time I consider dusting, I think of the manuscript I should be writing, or research I should do. I’m telling you there’s dust (oh boy, is there dust), and I’m also telling you why I tolerate it (it’s only dust and I have bigger priorities).
Description is also a fantastic tool for the writer to suggest themes. If my theme is the passing of time, I’ll tell you about the dead Kindle I use as a coaster for my tea mug, which still has the screen saver from the day in 2013 when Husband Dave accidentally shut the car boot on it. You can subtly direct the reader to notice ideas, suggested by the character’s thoughts in the moment (entropy, advancing technology). The dead Kindle also shows something about my personality – I hate throwing things away. And I’m creative – I use things for their unintended purpose.
Purpose. Let’s linger on that word. In good writing, every idea has a purpose. The writer knows how they’re handling the reader’s senses and emotions. It’s an experience that is precisely directed, like a stage illusion. The writer knows what they want you to look at, to think about, to feel. They also know what’s irrelevant and distracting.
Emotion gets our attention – and it’s memorable. We’re hard wired for it – as are most social animals. Ask anyone who trains dogs or horses.
This means you can use emotion to teach the reader about the character and whatever situation they’re in. You can also use a character’s emotional reactions to help the reader remember a detail that will be important later. If a man with a missing finger will be a big aha, the reader needs to notice him, but not too much. So draw our attention to the missing digit, and tie it to a feeling that seems relevant and significant at the time. Then reveal him again later, with writerly sleight of hand.
Description of characters’ physicality is often underused. Again, the missing piece is often the viewpoint character’s reaction or feeling. If you tell us about a character’s hairstyle or build, could you also use it to let us know what it’s like to be in the room with them?
‘He had close-cropped hair that looked military. He was tall. Elliot could imagine him shepherding a normal-sized person easily through a crowd, walking behind them like a protective exoskeleton, parting the masses with his arms. A belly swelled over his waistband. This did not make him look soft. Quite the opposite.’ (From Ever Rest)
While we’re talking about description, here’s an element you mustn’t miss out. At the start of a scene, the reader needs several Ws –
Who is there.
What they are doing.
When the scene is taking place – night, day, a rough idea of the time of year.
Where they are.
It’s surprising how many writers leave this out. The reader is actually blindfolded when they enter a scene, with only your voice to guide them. So you need to load this information fast – in the opening paragraphs, unless there’s a deliberate reason to keep it a mystery. (Usually there isn’t.)
I’ve read so many manuscripts where I was bumbling around confused because people were appearing suddenly and talking, and I didn’t know they were there. Or I’m unsure what the surroundings are. Someone puts a cup of coffee on the table, but is the table in a café, an office, on a mountainside or in somebody’s home? And where are they, geographically? Often writers will supply the place-names, hoping they will do all the descriptive work, but, my dear, there are several Birminghams and lots of Olympic parks. Readers like to know which country they’re in.
Also, they want to know what the place means to the character. Is it home? Is it a place the character might move to? Is it a place they never wanted to see again? Each feels different. Emotion gives vital context.
So if you want to pep up your descriptions, look for the details you can pin an emotion onto.
I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was Andy Dickenson @AJ_Dickenson, ITV reporter and YA author.
The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and commissioning editors would consider a submission.
This week’s edition had a range of genres. Speculative fiction, fantasy, sweet romance, contemporary and – a new one on me – Martini-flavoured spy thriller in a grounded steampunk world.
Have you heard of that? I hadn’t. But it turned out to be an accurate description.
As always, the manuscripts had many strengths. They were fluently written and thoroughly realised. The authors often had solid track records in other areas of writing. But how did they do as novelists, and were these submissions ready to wow an agent or publisher?
There were several issues we discussed.
Titles – Some titles suggested the wrong genre. Or weren’t memorable enough. Or didn’t catch the spirit of the text. Some hit exactly the right notes, but even so, the chatroom audience still had questions, worrying about whether the word order could be switched for more oomph.
Blurbs – Blurb-writing is a dark art of its own, and mostly loathed, but whenever you present a manuscript, you have to write a short summary. Some blurbs hit just the right notes, promising plenty of the kind of action that would appeal to readers of that genre. Some gave too much, so the reader was confused by the end. Some gave far too little – a vivid moment from the action, but no indication of the overall trajectory of the book, whether it would be personal essays that dwelt in the moment or a bigger arc, perhaps of tragedy, perhaps of healing. It’s so interesting to learn what the reader needs from that one, agonising paragraph.
Beats of action – one of the openings had an interesting incident, but was cluttered by another incident that took too much of our attention before switching to the important character. At the start of a novel, the reader is so adrift, they are easily overloaded.
Purpose and lack of purpose – one of the manuscripts had a vivid setting with one character observing another. But somehow the narrative lacked purpose – we didn’t know what the protagonist was there to do. This made the narrative hard to understand.
Starting at the wrong moment – two of the manuscripts were trying to front-load a lot of explanation and back story, but had done it in scenes that were not intrinsically interesting.
Developing a writing voice – this wasn’t a problem in any of the manuscripts we examined. All flowed beautifully in styles that seemed natural to the writer and suitable for their chosen genre. But Peter, as an agent, and also as Head Lit of Litopia, sees a lot of manuscripts that lack these qualities, so we spent one segment of the show discussing the elusive ‘it’ factor – how do you find your own writing voice?
Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.
Joseph Lezza’s first published book is a grief memoir, surrounding the death of his father from pancreatic cancer and the years that followed. It began as an MFA assignment to write a lyric essay, and once he’d finished he found he needed to write another and another, until he had a whole book, full of unexpected turns, resolutions and reconciliations – I’m Never Fine: Scenes And Spasms on Loss.
Why that title?
It was a happy accident. In the years after my father’s passing, my best friend and I shared hundreds of phone conversations in which she, the eternal optimist, would talk me down from some fit or frenzy. One day she said ‘You’ll be fine’. I blurted out ‘I’m never fine!’
I got to thinking about that word, fine. Victims of grief and loss are often quick to adopt it when talking to others because it’s easier than explaining how we’re really feeling to people who, despite their best intentions, cannot begin to understand. We grow tired of the uncomfortable nods and pitiful shrugs, so we tell friends and loved ones that we’re ‘fine’, because, really, we want to change the subject.
Underneath all these ‘fines’, though, are a thousand emotions from manic to depressed, enraged to despondent. ‘Fine’ becomes the rug under which they’re all swept. But we further isolate ourselves and calcify these emotions that need to be dealt with.
I’m not advocating that people openly discuss something they’re not ready to, but I hope that by refusing to be ‘fine’ in this book, I might show someone how to feel less alone. And others might pay more attention to the folks in their lives who seem to be throwing it around too generously.
How did you come to write it?
I wrote the first piece in grad school while taking a course on the lyric essay. Up until that point, I was a neophyte when it came to writing about my own life. But I was exposed to Maggie Nelson, John D’Agata, Joan Didion, and Lia Purpura; writers who found astounding ways to bend poetic and journalistic and fictive elements to create nonfictional work that read as something completely other. When it came time for a lyric essay of my own, I decided to write about this period of my life.
As my program stretched on, I began to notice that a great deal of what I was writing was informed by that window of my life. I had to write my way through it before I could write anything else.
How did you get perspective – and breathing space – to write the book?
I was about six years past my father’s death, which provided enough of a distance to re-examine events from a vantage that wasn’t clouded by acute trauma.
With each re-examination, I was able to make peace with someone or something I’d been hanging on to for years. It was a communion of sorts, between me and the page; one in which I could finish conversations, uncover answers to questions, and experience a sort of therapy.
With memoir, we often don’t know how deep to go until a reader or editor asks us to.
I’m not sure digging deeper was ever the issue as much as directness. One thing you learn early in any writing programme is never to enter a piece with a particular message for the reader. That stifles the story because, each time the narrative bends in another direction, you course-correct and prevent the piece from becoming what it’s meant to be.
What was the hardest event to write?
One thing we tend to do, while grieving, is judge. We judge others for how they act and things they say that are largely in reaction to the trauma we’re sharing in. When their reaction doesn’t mirror our own, or strikes us as inappropriate or ignorant or even negligent, we’re very good at character assassination. I am and was incredibly guilty of this.
I swore in this book that I wouldn’t make a villain of anyone. While it’s important for accuracy to document my feelings and emotions as I experienced them, this could not be purely an exercise in telling tales out of school. So, every time I would approach a moment where I could rake someone across the coals, I detailed my initial observations, then attempted to empathise, or discern some rationale or motivation. This allowed me to catch things I’d never noticed in the moment, to reframe events from the POV of someone else who’d been there, someone I’d perhaps judged too hardly because I was too busy suffering from main character syndrome.
And I took as strong a hand with myself as I took with anyone else. Grief is good at tearing down the firewall between us and our irrational impulses. We walk willingly into embarrassing and dangerous places. So to leave out my own mistakes and misdeeds and portray myself as a happy warrior would be a fabrication and disservice to a reader who may be looking for validation. So I put it all in. All the difficult, dirty, damning things. As punishing as they may have been to revisit and write, if I can help someone feel less alone, I will have done something worthwhile.
How did you get a blurb line from Russell T Davies? (Wow!)
I came to know of Russell, like most gays, through Queer as Folk. The US version lived during the entirety of my high school and early college years, the years where content and pop culture is massively impactful because it’s a window into a wider world.
At that time, there wasn’t much LGBTQ content in the mainstream, at least content that wasn’t sanitized. By contrast, QAF was provocative and alternative and confronted a lot of issues that I believe helped a lot of young queer people feel seen. In the years since I came to appreciate Russell for the creative genius he is, in works like It’s a Sin and A Very English Scandal. He’s a writer and creative that I greatly admire.
While I wish I could say we are friends, but he didn’t know me from a hole in the wall. That anonymity made me brave. I sent a message that I never expected to be answered; but was met with sincerity, openness and unfathomable generosity. Russell turned out to be just as superlative a person as he is an artist.
So much of the book creation process involves taking long shots and submitting yourself for consideration…and often rejection. I often have to remind myself that that endorsement actually happened.
What else do you write?
I have published a mix of essays, fiction, and poetry. I’m Never Fine is my first full-length book, but my work has appeared in Santa Fe Writers Project, Variant Literature, Still, Occulum Journal, West Trade Review and presses like Messy Misfits Club and Unfortunately. Seven pieces from the book have seen individual publication.
It never gets any less astounding when a press, which has likely never heard of you and has zero stake in your success, gives time and resources to amplify your art. I try to do whatever I can to support them in kind.
In the outside world you’re also a marketer. Marketer of what?
Integrated marketing – we develop ways to embed brands into TV programmes.
It’s an interesting world because consumers are getting smarter. We can smell an ad a mile away and tune it out. But if we’re watching something that fits authentically in the worlds we escape to, we’re more likely to pay attention and engage.
What other jobs have you done, from major to minor?
Growing up I did everything from run games at the local amusement park to renting chairs and inner tubes at the beach to managing an ice cream and candy store. Most of my years in college I spent waiting tables at brunch places and Italian restaurants. My first job post-college was an internship at Walt Disney World where I was a skipper on the World Famous Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom. I also worked as a game driver on Kilimanjaro Safaris, a concierge at the Animal Kingdom Lodge and a guest relations host at the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom parks.
How did they shape you?
I learned to adapt and communicate with folks from diverse walks of life. I made friends, met antagonists, fell in love a bunch, got my heart broken a bunch more. All of the people and places, the nicks and dings, the hills the valleys, the vistas, the shadows; they made me who I am. I don’t think you can write successfully from a place of safety. You’ve gotta have fun and maybe get beaten up a bit. But that’s okay. Just fill your pen with ink from the bruises.
How did you end up as a writer?
I am an only child and spent a good deal of time entertaining myself. I built worlds and told stories with toys and action figures. I memorised my favourite books word for word before I could even read them. When my TV shows were done for the day, I’d construct new narrative offshoots and build myself in as an original character.
Was anyone else in your family creative?
Both my parents. My mother made dresses from a the moment she could thread a needle. She cultivates beautiful gardens that are always in bloom. She reads, she crafts, she bakes, she knits.
My father was very creative. While he found himself in a ‘sensible’ career to provide for his family, he found countless ways to express himself. He was a master craftsman and a fantastic wood worker. With him, I built rocket kits and model cars. We’d make pine box roadsters for the yearly cub scout derby. In the holidays, we’d clear out the furniture, lay down green carpet and train tracks, and turn the living room into a snowy winter hamlet with working trolleys, locomotives, and cable cars, trees, skating rinks, burger stands, theatres, hotels, and hundreds of residents. Each year he’d add a new building, a recreation of his father’s barber shop or a toy store with shelves of miniature gifts. His creativity was boundless.
What did you gain from the MFA?
Countless things. Exposure to books and professors and students, each with their own unique perspective. I was forced to write outside my comfort zone and in various genres, from which I learned practices and tactics. I learned to workshop, to see feedback not as a criticism but a way to make my work better.
Just as importantly, I learned to give feedback and help fellow writers build up their own work. Because it was an online program, I shared classes with students from the US, South America, Asia, Europe and elsewhere. I shared classes with writers of all ages, all of whom brought invaluable life experience to the discussion. Most of all, I gained a clearer idea of who I am as a writer.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m outlining another collection. But before I begin in earnest, I plan to abscond to a cabin in the woods, touch some trees, get my boots dirty, and turn my brain off.
Some quick-fire questions:
What five books would you save if your house was on fire?
The White Album, Joan Didion
Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
Call Me By Your Name, Andre Aciman
The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai
Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
What scares you?
Growing up, I was timid. Yet I was fascinated by the things that scared me. I think my father’s passing taught me about unrealized potential and how little control we have over our time on earth. We plan things. We put them off for a better day. But that better day might not come.
You can use that as an impulse to seize the moments when you’re in them, to take a leap. When I wanted to travel somewhere but didn’t have a partner who shared an interest in that location, I went myself. I threw myself in the middle of strange places and strange people and made my way. I’ve grabbed every opportunity to do that since.
After college, when I decided to move to a different state, because it was scary and exciting. I remember that drive down the east coast on I-95, increasingly nervous and thrilled with each state I passed because it was just me, my car and whatever I could fit into the tiny backseat hurtling toward an absolute mystery.