An Interview with Kermit Frazier
In the following interview, TMR intern Jed Graham talks with Kermit Frazier about his essay “Snow.” In that essay, Frazier delves into his childhood years spent in the Washington, DC, area during a pivotal period of American history. “Snow” was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest and first appeared in print in TMR 42:2. You can read the essay here.
A revised version of “Snow” also appears as the second chapter in Kermit’s recently released memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age, published by McFarland Publishing. First Acts is a candid and emotionally evocative glimpse at his coming-of-age as a Black youth, set against the backdrop of the social revolutions of mid-twentieth century America.
Jed Graham: “Snow” begins with a powerful metaphor for the Black experience in America. Would you say this metaphor embodies your philosophy about where we are culturally and as a nation?
Kermit Frazier: Well, I suppose that one key expression, which appears in both the opening paragraph and as the final words of “Snow,” is “the stuff of dreams.” And if the dream, the ideal in some respects, is a kind of complex, substantial integration in this country or at least a respectful mixing of races, ethnic groups, classes, even points of view, perhaps, then yes, it’s still, forever, seemingly, “the stuff of dreams” as far as I’m concerned.
JG: Your childhood took place during a momentous time in American history. As you point out in “Snow,” segregation was on its last legs, and integration brought with it new benefits and complications. As a part of the generation that grew up during these times, how is your perspective different from the generations that came before you and those that came afterward, and do we get to see more of this perspective in First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age?
KF: I suppose that whatever perspectives there are of generations that came before me are rooted principally in the portraits of my parents, who were born in Washington, DC, in the 1920s. My grandparents migrated to DC earlier as young adults from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. And all of them, parents and grandparents alike, knew de jure (by law) segregation and lived through it, even thrived through it in many respects, despite it all. My memories of segregation, though, are much more short-lived, and my kids have no such memory, so to speak. And I suppose you might call that some sort of “arc of history.” Nevertheless, de facto segregation—segregation in reality—persists. Much of it has to do with housing patterns and perceptions of difference and, of course, at times out-and-out deadly discrimination still. Driving, walking, breathing while Black.
As far as the entire memoir is concerned, the actions, and incidents, are rooted in the past, principally the 1950s and ’60s, although, of course, my present self is watching over in perspective my past selves, so to speak. Also, the final chapter, “Flux,” is an afterword, whose perspective is essentially 2020, both literally and metaphorically.
JG: An especially poignant moment in “Snow” is the recounting of your mother’s experience during the upheaval of urban renewal/removal. You wrote, “When they had to move, their search for housing was traumatic for her: she was so afraid that they’d wind up homeless and on the streets.” How strongly does her experience echo today’s issues of “social and economic isolation,” and “increased gentrification?”
KF: First of all, let me say that both my mother and my father were extraordinary people. I’m largely here and who I am because of them, however critically I’ve also managed to shape myself as myself. My mother was just seven years old when her father died of meningitis at thirty-two in 1932. Her mother was only twenty-nine, suddenly widowed with four kids. She went to work during the Depression as a housekeeper for white families, helping in some sense to raise their kids as she strongly raised her own. Back then, a lot of my mother’s relatives lived in Southwest DC, which is the smallest of the four sections of the originally diamond-shaped, one-hundred-square-mile nation’s capital. But in 1847, Virginia, which, along with Maryland, donated land to create DC, had all the land she’d donated retroceded to her. Land across the Potomac River, essentially Alexandria. Supposedly, some say, because folks wanted to preserve the active slave trade there. But that’s another story. . . In any event, that’s why Southwest is DC’s smallest quadrant and why DC is about sixty-eight square miles rather than the original one-hundred. In fact, if you look at a map, you can still trace the vestiges of the southwestern diamond shape by including Arlington County, VA.
Southwest was more swampy and mosquito-ridden and thus less desirable, which is why Black folks could live there in their “shotgun” houses. But then the federal government wanted the land for itself, claimed it by eminent domain, and Black folks, all folks, had to move. And that’s not only part of the story of my mother’s memory but part of the continual co-optation through eminent domain or gentrification without building affordable housing. And that’s a main root of increasing homelessness today in cities across the country. It’s something I briefly allude to in “Flux: An Afterword,” the final chapter of First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age.
JG: What are some positive lessons you hope that individuals and families who are bearing the brunt of the current iteration of inequality can glean from “Snow” and your memoir?
KF: First of all, that memory is more than a “theatricalization of the self,” as one writer has essentially put it. It can also be both an anchor and a perspective that affects change. Look how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go. And also, that growing up itself should be a form of positive integration as one strives to merge aspects of oneself into a meaningful, positive, progressive whole. As for the country as a whole, well, that’s a whole other story.
JG: You are a playwright, TV writer, essayist, and now a memoirist as well. How has working in these different genres challenged you as a writer?
KF: Even before I enrolled in the PhD program in English at the University of Chicago, I was writing prose fiction. Then when I dropped out of that program after a year to study acting at NYU, I kept writing and had a couple of short stories published in literary journals. I didn’t write my first full-length play, which had actually begun as yet another piece of prose fiction, until the characters just wouldn’t shut up while I was acting in a play off-off-Broadway. (It was a revival, by the way, of Paul Green’s 1940s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son.) From then on, I switched to writing plays, although I continued to write prose fiction, off and on—and still do—being a playwright was suddenly essential to me and my artistic relationship with theater, especially since acting wasn’t getting me all that far. So, I kept focusing on writing plays and getting them produced. Much later I got my first television writing job, worked in Los Angeles a bit, then back to New York and on to the wonderful Ghostwriter, which I helped to create and for which I was a head writer, and then on from there—more than a dozen different television series in various genres thus far. And through it all, I’ve learned that for me, television writing is as much about making a living as it is about creating, however wonderful that can always be, while being a playwright is first about complete ownership of one’s artistic vision and then about possibly making a living.
Meanwhile, I was writing the occasional essay and book review. And then, twenty years ago, I began looking back more on my life, how I grew up, and the twists and turns of it all, which led me to begin writing about it. But I wasn’t interested in crafting some chronological autobiography or memoir, which I think would have bored me, but rather in writing a series of discrete essays, memories, each of which would begin with and grow from, or be rooted in, some metaphor. That approach was much more interesting to me. “Aspects of perception,” one of my early working titles, was more interesting to me creatively than rote, chapter-by-chapter chronology. Hence, most of the titles of the ten chapters in my memoir are one word— “Snow,” “Drive,” “Pee,” “Fire,” “Ironing,” “Geometry” —that are both concrete and image-bearing. Or they are expressions that circle and then embrace both the concrete and the metaphorical— “How I Danced,” “Reading Apprehension,” “Of Crickets and Boys.” It’s a way, I suppose, to “see” three-dimensionally as I write in whatever form. And hopefully, in some sense, each form “informs” the others as I write, as I shuffle between, or perhaps more ricochet among, them.
JG: Your body of work spans the full range of audience age groups. Are there themes or common threads that, say, individuals who watched Ghostwriter as children can revisit in your plays, essays, and memoir?
KF: Hmm. How to answer that question. . . I would say, of course, that principally I write about people, characters who are striving to define, refine, or rediscover themselves. And their struggle and drive grow out of specific needs, desires, and obsessions. To live, to be alive, after all, is to want, hope, seek, create, discover. And of course, that which constitutes story, which creates drama, which causes one to lean into what one sees or reads, to want to viscerally experience what happens next, is the obstacles characters face, be they internal or external. Hence, the characters in Ghostwriter, the multi-ethnic group of smart, curious, courageous young folks in Brooklyn, were striving to simultaneously solve mysteries and to discover more about themselves, to grow. And I hope that’s the same for the characters or narrators in everything I write in whatever form, or genre. That’s perhaps some common thread.
JG: In recent years, one of your early plays, Kernel of Sanity has received renewed attention. How does the theater world of today compare with that of 1978 when it comes to getting your plays into production?
KF: Actually, Kernel of Sanity, is that first play that I wrote while acting in Native Son off-off-Broadway. That very next year I was fortunate enough to have it selected to be workshopped at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. It wasn’t formally produced, though, until 30 years later, by Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre in New York. But the wonderful, Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright, Paula Vogel, selected it in the spring of 2020 as the inaugural presentation in her new online series, “Bard at the Gate,” which she created and produced to showcase what she considered to be overlooked plays. And that generated a full-page feature article in the “Arts and Leisure” section of the New York Times (June 24, 2020) entitled, “A Timely Reading for an Overlooked Play.” That attention has generated further interest in my work, ironically, I suppose, during the pandemic and hence online. Overall, though, except for the necessary “BIPOC Demands for White American Theater” movement that has caused theaters to deal more honestly, if still fitfully, with a number of inclusion issues, getting one’s plays produced remains an incredible challenge. Nevertheless, it’s always about the work. There’s nothing for me quite like being in a theater, in rehearsal for a new play of mine. That’s what I’m forever seeking. But of course, one must write it first. And writing, in whatever form or genre, will always be what I do.
Kermit Frazier’s more than twenty-five plays have been produced at such theaters as the New Federal Theatre, Detroit Repertory Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Seattle Children’s Theatre, and Baltimore Center Stage. Some have also been published by Broadway Play Publishing and Dramatic Publishing. In addition, he’s written for several television series, including head writer for the popular children’s mystery series, Ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in: Callaloo, Essence, Black World, Green Mountains Review, American Theatre, and the New York Times Book Review. His memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age, was published in May 2022.
Jed Graham is a 2022 summer intern at the Missouri Review and a junior at Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri, where he is majoring in English and creative writing.
An Interview With Clare Needham
In the interview that follows, Clare Needham talks with TMR interns Persy Clark and Kim Potthast about her essay “Cover Up.” In that essay, the author describes her time spent living and working in Jerusalem. The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize competition and appeared in print in TMR 44:3. You can read the essay here.
Kim Potthast: The title “Cover Up” is simple but effective. How did you choose it? Were there ever any other titles this essay went by?
Clare Needham: I chose “Cover Up” because it can be read as a verb or, hyphenated, as a noun: Cover-up. I intend both readings. I read the title as an imperative, as a command I gave myself to disguise my body as much as possible. As a noun, it functions as a secret note for me, with its suggestion of suppression and concealment. There’s so much I left out in this essay to tell this one particular story. It’s a reminder that the essay is itself a cover-up for a larger, longer story.
There weren’t any viable alternative titles, but I remember that while walking around Jerusalem I’d often think of writing a story I’d call “Who Do You Think You Are?”—without understanding what it would contain or how I’d begin. It’s a question that ricocheted around my head a lot, a question I directed at myself, and also one I wanted to ask constantly of everyone else. It’s a good question, in all its tonal possibilities and responses.
Persy Clark: If you had written this essay while still living in Jerusalem, how different do you think it would be?
CN: I would not have written this essay while living in Jerusalem. In those years, I was fixated on and defeated by trying to understand and explain the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In the years since my return to New York, I’ve drifted back to my usual self-contemplation. I still think constantly about Jerusalem, though. It was an education that went beyond the limits of what this essay conveys.
I didn’t intend to write this essay at all—it took me by surprise. I wrote it very quickly in early April 2020, a singular time to be living in New York City, then the epicenter of the pandemic. A couple of weeks before New York issued a mask mandate, I decided one afternoon that I’d tie a scarf around the lower half of my face and keep it on in the grocery store. On my walk over, a man saw me in my makeshift mask and crossed the street before I could pass him. I don’t know what he thought—did he think I was infected?–but his action catapulted me back to the times in Jerusalem, when I would have wanted nothing more than to have that power, to appear dangerous and repel everyone (meaning men) around me. In April 2020, it was as if I’d assumed this incredible power I’d needed and wanted so much in another city, in another time. When I reread “Cover Up” recently, I was surprised by how quickly I launch into a description of what I’m wearing, the uniform I develop and change. But then I’m reminded that I really did begin this as an essay about clothing, and the sometimes-magical thinking I’ve had around clothes: that the right clothes change everything and will protect me. That adding (or removing) clothing is an effective form of control.
KP: In your essay, you mention the death of the American activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer under contested circumstances. The story was told to you as a warning. Were there any other examples of violent or deadly incidents like this being used as warnings to resident aliens?
CN: An Israeli colleague mentioned Rachel Corrie to me not as a warning but as an example of how I was being perceived by authority—in specific, by Israeli airport security at Ben Gurion. Jerusalem is not a dangerous city. It’s safer than many American cities, if not most. But in any city, your safety depends on who you are, how you appear, how likely you are to be treated or mistreated by the police, or, in the case of Jerusalem, by the Israeli army, too. Jerusalem is safe for me in a way it’s not for a Palestinian living in Sheikh Jarrah. What happened to me, this kind of stranger vs. stranger violence, was an anomaly, something that shocked Palestinians and Israelis alike. I knew that some people back in the States assumed that I was contending daily with the specter of bus bombings, but I lived in Jerusalem in so-called quiet years. There wasn’t the kind of violence that makes international headlines. But there was, and still is, the everyday violence of the occupation, which Westerners can more easily ignore. In “Cover Up,” I describe limitations to my movement in a specific neighborhood, but in general, in retrospect, I was very free. Often, I’d walk through the Old City to get to West Jerusalem, and sometimes the Israeli army would create surprise checkpoints, say at Damascus Gate. One hot afternoon, I took my place at the end of a long line and prepared to show my ID. Within a minute, a soldier led me to the front, apologizing and explaining that the line was “for Arabs only.” Burning with shame, I continued on my way.
KP: How and why did you develop a desire to conform and not make waves, to be a “perfect stranger”?
CN: Sometimes I think of Jerusalem and New York as opposites. In New York, people dress to be seen. I love looking at what people wear. Also in New York, you can dress outrageously, and no one will look twice. I love New York for its gift of anonymity. It’s a kind of anonymity that is not possible in Jerusalem, and really, it’s hard to find this anonymity in other cities, too. In Jerusalem, there are large religious communities, Muslim, Jewish, also Christian. There’s an emphasis on modesty—which is not to say that modesty precludes style. But I knew even before I moved to Jerusalem that I would no longer be operating as I had in New York. I wanted not so much to conform as to pass as a respectful outsider. Is it possible to be a “perfect stranger”? Probably not. It gets back to this interesting question: Who do you think you are?
PC: Do you think conditions for women in America could ever become similar to those in Jerusalem, given the right circumstances?
CN: Women in Jerusalem lead all kinds of lives. There, as it is here, in America, or anywhere in the world, the status of women as people is never secure. It’s constantly being negotiated and is often undermined.
PC: Were there any parts in the final draft of this piece that you considered excluding? If so, why?
CN: I’d consider excluding the entire essay. I usually write fiction, and there’s freedom and power in not claiming anything I write as hewing too closely to my own experiences, thoughts, obvious shortcomings. In fiction, there’s freedom in parceling out bits of my life and observations to different characters.
Also, I’d exclude nothing. I’d leave everything in. But I’d interrogate every sentence, elaborate on it, make it lead to other places. I’d write a longer work that departs from the same material.
There is one small edit I’d actually like to make. In the final sentence, I write: “In America, I could be as dangerous or as harmless as I believed myself to be.” I’d like to exclude “In America.” I’m not sure why I qualified the sentence that way when it’s true for me elsewhere as well.
Clare Needham is a writer living in New York City. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, PEN America, MacDowell, Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. During her second year living in Jerusalem, she worked for the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence and oversaw the English translation of Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010, published by Metropolitan Books in 2012.
An Interview With Daphne Kalotay
In the interview that follows, Daphne Kalotay talks with TMR intern Angela Horina about her story “Heart Scalded” (TMR 44:2). Viv, the story’s protagonist, is a terminally ill cancer patient who attends a Halloween Party and endures a painful encounter with her ex. You can read the story here:
Angela Horina: Every time I read “Heart-Scalded,” I find another layer that I didn’t see before. You’ve managed to blend several themes into a traditional breakup story that touches on many topics: Viv is a terminally ill cancer patient, and she and Aziz broke up over moral divisions. How did you come to balance the different issues and themes in the story?
Daphne Kalotay: For me, the story is about understanding both that things come to an end—including our own lives—and that there are consequences to our actions, including grave ones for our planet and the people and plants and animals trying to survive on it. These themes were naturally entwined for me because the story was inspired by my dear friend, Judy, an environmentalist who was often morally enraged by a lot of what she saw around her (without being outwardly annoying about it) and who lived with terminal cancer for nine years. So the balance of topics occurred organically.
AH: Did you begin with the idea of a terminal illness story or the idea of a breakup story—or were the two intertwined from the start?
DK: They were intertwined from the start. During a summer toward the end of her illness, my friend attended a party (not a Halloween party, or a pig roast) where she knew her ex (the great love of her life) would be with his fiancée, whom she had never seen before. It struck me as incredibly brave. Then, before she died, she told me she hoped I’d write about her and her ex (with whom she was still close and who came to be by her side at the end). I still haven’t figured out how to write about that relationship, but the idea of the party where she faced meeting the fiancée stayed with me. Finally, last year, I was able to sit down and do something with it.
AH: “Heart-Scalded” is an incredibly visual story, and the setting itself acts as a kind of character (the references to color stand out). Why did you place so much emphasis on the visual?
DK: In part, I was simply imagining what the character would notice, since the story is a companion piece to a story I wrote a few years ago from Viv’s friend’s perspective, in which we learn a bit more about Viv’s paintings—so I knew that Viv, as an artist, would think visually and notice colors. And because the story is so internal, it reflects the way she experiences the world around her. As for that green color, green was Judy’s favorite color, and a couple of the walls in her apartment were painted a vivid green. She had many plants growing all around. So I’m not surprised that I seized on that color specifically.
AH: Viv’s vulnerability in the story is poignant: her dealing with shame of being “so Viv,” her facing her own mortality, and her seeing other people get stuck in their own decisions all force the reader to assess their own decisions. Was it part of your intention for the reader to experience Viv’s pain?
DK: As a writer, I want my writing to be true. I don’t mean that the story is a true story; I mean that whoever the character is, I’m being true to how that character would feel in the moment. And I think that when a writer does this, the reader is able to experience, to a certain degree, whatever the character experiences in a way that, as you point out, reverberates, so that we reassess our own experiences and decisions.
AH: There are pointedly political elements to this story. Would you consider, or have you ever considered, working on a political novel or series of stories?
DK: My first novel, Russian Winter, was about the lasting repercussions of totalitarianism, and my most recent novel, Blue Hours, is about white privilege and Western paternalism, with the second half of the book specifically about American intervention in Afghanistan. So it’s possible I’m unable to write a book that doesn’t in some way touch upon the political!
Daphne Kalotay’s books include the award-winning Sight Reading and Russian Winter, the fiction collection Calamity and Other Stories — shortlisted for the Story Prize — and the new novel Blue Hours, a 2020 Massachusetts Book Awards “Must Read.” Published in 20+ languages, her work has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, MacDowell, Yaddo, and Bogliasco, among others, and her story “Relativity” was the 2017 One City One Story Boston pick. She teaches for Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing but makes her home in Somerville, Massachusetts.
An interview with Marin Sardy
Marin Sardy‘s essay “A Shapeless Thief,” about her mother’s schizophrenia, first appeared in the Missouri Review (37:2) and later became part of her new memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia (Pantheon, 2019). You can read Marin’s essay here.
Last month we talked with Marin about the development of the memoir and her new book project.
Evelyn Somers: Initially you saw your book as an essay collection. How and when did you realize you were working on a more cohesive memoir?
Marin Sardy: Even when I was writing the individual essays, I had a sense that they would be able to collectively tell a larger story. They were each about some slice of my life, and I suspected that if I put enough slices together, some kind of arc would emerge. I didn’t know what that larger story would be, however, until far along in the process. It wasn’t until I started writing the chapters about my brother’s homelessness—which I wrote last—that I saw that much of what had been driving me had always related to questions about how my family’s long history with mental illness came to bear on my brother’s struggles with schizophrenia. I also found I had much more to say about my brother’s story than I had expected, which gave some of those parts more of a flavor of narrative memoir than of the highly selective, tightly constructed essays I had produced first. So it was a lot of letting things happen as the words came out and paying attention to what the words were telling me, and looking for the connections that became visible after everything was down on the page.
ES: Did the early publication of some of the pieces give you more confidence going forward with the book?
MS: Definitely. More confidence and more skill. The practice and the encouragement I got along the way turned out to be integral to the final product. In retrospect, I’m so glad the book developed the way it did, though it took a much more circuitous path than I ever expected. Taking the time to fully shape the essays that later became chapters, stepping back from them and letting them steep for a while before returning to the work—that allowed my ideas to percolate, so that by the time I was thinking in terms of a book, I had really developed my own perspective about mental illness and knew what I wanted to say. And how I wanted to say it!
Also, going through the process of submitting to journals and working with editors helped me understand how my work fit into the larger literary landscape. The people I knew who were getting book contracts weren’t trying any of the weird conceptual and structural approaches I was taking in my essays, but when I sent my pieces to literary journals, I got a lot of positive feedback. So the successes I had in the world of litmags gave me more confidence to take that work into the realm of New York publishing and see if someone would be interested. And someone was.
ES: Can you say a little about the process of turning a group of individual essays into a memoir–for instance, even though The Edge of Every Day is not a traditional chronological narrative, were there gaps in the story that you realized you needed to fill in?
MS: My first reaction to this question is actually to laugh because when I look at the finished book, all I see is gaps! And that was a deliberate choice, and it kind of surprised me when early readers of the manuscript commented on how well it all seemed to flow together. But I never really thought of it as “I’m turning a group of separate essays into a memoir.” To me, the essays were not very separate from one another anyway, and I don’t feel like I’ve entirely transformed it into a memoir either. My editor and I were not aiming for it to be “a memoir” in the typical sense. Here’s an example: When I first sold my book based on having about two-thirds of it written, my editor, Catherine Tung, asked me if I’d be willing to add some “connective tissue.” But she also assured me that, for the most part, it should keep its “highly fragmented” shape. That sounded fine to me. Several months later, when we were talking again about the book in depth and I was saying I had this chapter and that chapter to add, none of which qualified as “connective tissue,” Catherine said, “You know, looking at it now, I really don’t think the book needs more connective tissue. ” And I just thought, “No, it doesn’t need it at all.” So we scrapped that idea and never looked back.
I just focused on telling all the parts of the story that I felt were necessary to include, and on telling them in the ways they needed to be told. I really believe in listening to the material, in letting it tell you what form it should take. And it just became what it wanted to become, which is somewhere in between a memoir and an essay collection. What I did end up changing to make it more memoir-like was so minor it hardly registers to me now. I rearranged a few paragraphs at the beginnings of some chapters that were formerly essays, so that each one opened on me rather than on some other topic. I cut out redundancies and added a few sentences to clarify shifts in time and place. And of course, we were very strategic about the order in which we arranged the chapters—loosely but not strictly chronological. But that’s about it. Now we’ve labeled it a memoir, and that seems to work for people. But I think of it more as, maybe, “memoirs”—or, as my subtitle says, “sketches.”
ES: In your research for the book, you spent some time learning about the neuroscience of schizophrenia. Did that change how you wrote about your mother and brother?
MS: Yes, very much—but largely in ways that it’s now hard to put my finger on. The early research I did, in the first couple of years of writing about schizophrenia, fundamentally shifted my thinking about mental illness. And it wasn’t just neuroscience, but also philosophy—the phenomenology of psychosis. And that change in my perspective pervades the whole book. The biggest thing the research did for me was show me where I had been making unfounded assumptions about what I’d witnessed. I had been personally relating to schizophrenia for decades, so I had a lot of my own ideas about it, most of which were unexamined and some of which were incorrect. Being forced to confront and then question my own perceptions and conclusions opened me up to many new paths of inquiry. And that got me excited about delving deeper into what I had experienced, what those things might mean, things I hadn’t considered before. So I was able to approach the topic, and those relationships, from an open place rather than a restricted place. It proved so creatively fruitful and became a way for me to transform what were deeply traumatic events in my life into something that revealed a broader view of what had happened, a view that could be much more useful to readers.
ES: What was the most important discovery you made in writing the book–either about mental illness or about writing?
MS: Most importantly for me, the writing process enabled me to rediscover my brother. To remember who he was as a person, who he always had been, inside his illness. For so many years, my focus was on his schizophrenia—how it affected him, how it harmed him, how I could or couldn’t help him. And I grieved deeply for what was lost when he became ill. But all of that focus and intense emotion, I later realized, had the effect of obscuring his actual presence in the world. After writing the book, I felt very bad that I hadn’t been more cognizant of that while he was alive. The book, and all of the sorting through my memories and feelings that it required, eventually made it possible for me to find him again inside his own story. So in a way, after losing him twice—first to illness, then to death—I got him back as a result of writing the book. It’s sort of the Wizard of Oz effect: searching and searching, only to find that what you’ve been looking for was there all along.
ES: What’s your next writing project or challenge?
MS: I’m pleased to be able to say that I am beginning work on a second book. It’s in the nascent stages still—just a lot of research and notes—but in the last several months I’ve begun to see what I want it to be. Like this first book, it will discuss mental illness. But it will largely focus on an artist whose work I have long admired, who died in 2012: a photographer who lived with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, and whose work in many ways reflected her struggles. I hope to tell parts of her story and include a fair amount of art criticism as well, in which I engage deeply with her images and reflect on them in terms of my own experiences with mental illness.
Unbound Book Festival Podcast: An Interview with José Orduña
This week on The Missouri Review’s Soundbooth Podcast, audio intern Annie Thomas interviews author José Orduña. Orduña
An Interview with Becky Mandelbaum
Lexi Wilkinson: The story is in ways a revenge story; Jackie, the protagonist, ultimately gets the better of her ex-boyfriend, Ellison, and even his dead wife, Gloria. Was there a relationship of yours that inspired the story?
Becky Mandelbaum: Not really, or at least not one relationship specifically. I’ve had my share of heartbreaks, and this story is, for me, an exploration of who and what we become when we’re alone and let our heartbreaks obsess us. The thing I find fascinating about Jackie is that despite how much she beats up on herself, she’s actually pretty good on her own—she finds ways to have fun, to entertain herself. But as soon as you insert anyone else into the situation, she starts to turn on herself. She becomes jealous and malicious, vengeful, self-deprecating. She’s still a touch strange on her own, but she’s kinder to herself. In this way, Jackie and I are similar. I think I’m at my moral highest when I’m alone—maybe this is true for everyone.
LW: The mountain-ranch setting of the piece is very well described: the mountains, the horses, the three-hour trek to Costco. Why did you choose this as the location for your story?
BM: I started writing this story while I was house-sitting for the writer Pam Houston, a close friend and mentor whom I met in grad school at UC Davis. Pam lives on a ranch in Creede, Colorado, which is essentially where I set this story. The ranch is one of the most dreamy, beautiful places I’ve ever been, but I spent a lot of time alone there and had ample time to explore the peculiarities of solitude. Some of Jackie’s behaviors are my own. I didn’t snoop through wedding cards or sleep with the farrier, but I did talk to inanimate objects and find myself ping-ponging between bursts of euphoria and restlessness. When the snow was thigh-high and I had no way to get my wiggles out, I too explored the world of online workout videos.
LW: There is a line where Jackie says, “You might be thinking I was lonely, but this is not the case.” What about this idea of isolation that isn’t loneliness? Is there truly a difference?
BM: There is a huge difference between isolation and loneliness. If isolation is a river then loneliness is a glacier—they’re made of the same element but possess entirely different forms. Loneliness can be a product of isolation (to go back to the water metaphor, it is what happens when we let isolation paralyze us), but it doesn’t have to be. Anyone who has spent extended time alone knows that isolation can induce a range of other emotions, many of them positive: serenity, clarity, joy, bravery, humor, playfulness, curiosity, gratitude, kindness.
I think, as a species, we’ve become afraid of solitude—afraid of the discomfort, the boredom, the task of keeping ourselves company. Social media plays a big part in this. We’re spending less and less time with the discomfort of solitude, a discomfort that can grow into something productive if we let it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve experienced my fair share of loneliness, but it’s usually sharpest when I’m not actually by myself. That’s part of what I wanted to express with this story. We often feel lonely because we have given others permission to make us feel that way. When we avoid solitude altogether, we sacrifice opportunities for personal growth.
LW: In the story, you play with the idea of identity. Can you say more about why and how that became a primary theme of the story?
BM: In many ways, this story is an exploration of the relationship between identity and solitude. A lot of us grow up thinking our identity depends on the perceptions and judgements of others, that other people make us who we are. When you’re alone, you realize you have an identity that’s completely separate from other people. You learn things about yourself: how you like to spend your time, what you like to think about, what brings you joy or makes you uneasy or restless or sad. You learn how to entertain yourself and enjoy your own company. You can hear yourself better. Jackie’s on her way to understanding who she is, but she’s not quite there. The ranch is trying to teach her, but she’s not listening. She still has one ear pressed to the door of a world in which she finds her value from men. One day she’ll walk away, but not yet.
LW: Finally, what are you working on now?
BM: I’m working on a novel that takes place on an animal sanctuary in western Kansas.
Visiting Hart's Grove
This week, we’re catching up with author Dennis McFadden’s, whose debut fiction-collection, Hart’s Grove, is just out from Colgate University Press. Snag your copy here. Dennis’s story, “The Three-Sided Penny” appeared in The Missouri Review’s Winter 2007 issue, which you can purchase here. He lives and writes in an old farmhouse called Mountjoy on Bliss Road, off Peaceable Street, just up from Harmony Corners, and took a few minutes this month to let us know how it feels to be a debut author. This interview was conducted by one of our summer interns, Andrea Waterfield.
1) You work as a project manager for New York State. Do you ever find yourself bringing experiences from your daily job into your writing?
For the most part, no. Work is work and fiction is fiction and never the twain shall meet. Well, never say never. I did write one story called “Building 8” the protagonist of which is a career bureaucrat, and which takes place in the infamously “sick” title building, a building based, incidentally, on a real state office building here in Albany. The story is a wonderful, laugh-out-loud-funny parody of bureaucracy, but unfortunately I’m the only one it seems to make laugh out loud. It remains, as of this date, unpublished, though full of hope.
2) What have you been reading/spending your time with most lately?
My full-time job, which, as the term “full-time” might imply, occupies at least part of my time. When I’m not there, or writing or sleeping, I’m often reading historical novels. I try to read what I’m writing. For the last decade or so, when I was writing short stories exclusively, I was reading nothing but short stories. I seldom read collections (Alice Munro and George Saunders being the glorious exceptions); on the theory that if you want to write your best you should read the best, I read the prize anthologies for the most part – O. Henry, Pushcart and Best American Short Stories. As a matter of fact, I collect the latter as a hobby; I probably have 75% of all the volumes published since they were inaugurated in 1915, and I’m hoping they’ll rub off. With hard work and perseverance I hope to someday be included in Good American Short Stories, then work my way up to Better American Short Stories. I think Best is probably too much to hope for at my age.
3) You’ve just published your first collection of stories, Hart’s Grove. What did you find to be the most exciting part of the process?
Without question, the most exciting part is the launching of the book after all the hum-drum hard work and tedium is done. Any writer who says otherwise is either lying or a fool. Of course, I suppose he or she could be both, a lying fool. Or a foolish liar. At any rate, after years of laboring in rejection and obscurity, never sure if your little collection of letters and syllables will ever see the light of day, the bright sunshine of the limelight is pretty irresistible, not to mention metaphorically mixed. I could get used to champagne, adoration, and applause if I weren’t so humble.
I’m writing a historical novel right now. The protagonist is a young doctor in the year 1857 in, of all places, Hart’s Grove, Pennsylvania. It’s based on one of my Hart’s Grove stories (which is not included in the collection) and I’ve written over 200 pages. Some wonderful writing there, if I do say so myself, chock full of terrific characters, snappy dialog, beautiful settings. But, it’s beginning to dawn on me that I’m probably going to need a plot as well, so it could be a while yet.
Andrea Waterfield is a summer intern with The Missouri Review.
An Interview with Julia Wendell
Julia Wendell’s work has appeared in TMR vol. 8.2, 12.2, and 19.1. Her new collection The Sorry Flowers was published in November 2009 by WordTech Communications.
Q: The Missouri Review first published your poem Fireside” in 1985. What is the biggest change in your interests as a writer since that time?
A: There have been a lot of joys and disappointments since then, and lots and lots of change. Since I’m a writer who writes from my own experiences, what is happening in my life affects my poems in a singular way. Back in 1985, I was rather freshly out of Iowa, still a publisher and teacher. At 54, I’m an equestrian athlete (specifically a three-day event rider) and am about as far away from the academy as possible. Somehow that seems to suit me. I draw life and energy and purpose from my horses, in much the same way that I do from my poems. Three-day eventing is as much about determination and bravery as poetry is about self-doubt and questioning, and somehow these oxymoronic elements in my life feed each other.
Q: What poets do you read frequently or particularly admire?
A: In a pinch, I’d say, Billy Collins, Louise Gluck, Mark Strand, Wordsworth, Keats, T.S. Eliot, and Milton are my favorite poets. They’re the ones whose poems I can read a thousand times and still find something illuminating and delightful on the 1001.
Q: In the last poem of your new collection, you wrote, “I want to fly on my new wings / I want to leave the barn and its longings.” Does that sentiment apply to you as a poet?
A: In much of The Sorry Flowers, the poet is hemmed in by sickness, depression, loss of her parents, conflicts in family life and life in general. There’s almost a claustrophobic feel as she confronts these issues, but I like to think that the poems open up a bit at the book’s end, offering resolutions and [an] escape from the self-consuming earlier poems. Life is change, and if we can change with it, then we can escape our boundaries and limitations as poets and as people and even identify with the natural world, [becoming] the young bird in the rafters.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: After finishing a memoir about my life as a three-day event rider called Finding my Distance, I’ve gone back to writing some poems and am enjoying a new narrative element that is infiltrating them, probably because I’ve spent the last five years writing all the way to the edge of the page. I would love to write more prose in the near future, and am waiting for the right spark.
An Interview with Todd James Pierce
Currently, Pierce is working on his non-fiction book, The Artifical Matterhorn and was glad to give us the inside look into his upcoming work.
INTERVIEWER: How long have you been working on your unpublished non-fiction book, “The Artificial Matterhorn?” What kind of research actually went into creating this project?
PIERCE: I’ve been working on it now for five years. Well, five years and a bit. In terms of research, I’ve completed a tremendous amount of research for the book. I spent a good deal of 2005-2007 in the air, traveling to the locations where these parks once stood and talking to the people who designed and built them. I know that I’ve conducted over 150 interviews for the book, most in person. And actually, I think the number now is closer to 175. But there’s something incredibly cool about spending a day with a person who is 80 or 90 or (in two cases) 97 and talking about his or her life experiences. Some of the Disney people, sure, have been previously interviewed about their work in outdoor amusements. But aside from them, most of these people have never been interviewed. So, from this perspective, I find the work rewarding, as I feel that I’m preserving something that would not otherwise be preserved.
INTERVIEWER: Theme parks have shown up before in your fiction. What draws you to this topic?
PIERCE: Two answers:
(1) My grandmother, whom I was very close to, worked in theme park operations for most of her life, up until the time she was 80. She started at Knott’s Berry Farm (here, in California) and then later worked for Disney. Even after she retired, she used to attend the “alumni” meeting each month at the park.
(2) I’m interested in the idea of themed space and our cultural attachment to entertainment. (You can probably see that in my last book, Newsworld.) The concept of themed space, in its barest form, is to create an artificial environment, landscape and architecture that is divorced from its surrounding geography. The particular type of themed space that was developed in the 1950s were these parks that allowed visitors to spend time in cinematic environments. The early theme parks resemble movie sets–the western set, the jungle set, the space port, etc. And so, back in the 1950s, the allure of the theme park was obvious: visitors wanted to spend time inside of an environment that resembled a movie or a TV show. It’s really the start of interactivity, the point at which the audience is allowed to participate in the film. From there, cinematic themed space expanded into restaurants and shopping malls, eventually into planned communities. In most American cities now, there are many places that resemble, to some extent, the type of environment found on a movie set.
I’m a professor. And I think most of the people I work with are disturbed by the artificiality of theme parks. I’m fascinated by it.
But also, I’m not writing a cultural studies book. I’m writing a narrative history–the story of the men and women who designed and built these parks, their elaborate struggles, the lawsuits, the crimes, the ambition, the greed. You know, the story is about the people more than anything else.
INTERVIEWER: How does “The Artificial Matterhorn” differ from your previously published work?
PIERCE: Most everything I’ve published up until this point has been fiction. At least in terms of book. This story is nonfiction. I’m using the writing stance of a novelist to create narration and construct scenes. But I’ve spent years now, talking with dozens and dozens of individuals, visiting archives, reviewing oral histories, reading every book and magazine article on the subject, so that hopefully I get the details right.
Look for Pierce’s The Artificial Matterhorn coming soon!
Lisa Hartman is a summer intern at The Missouri Review
Call for Interviews
TMR needs good, fresh author interviews for Volume 31 (2008). Recent past issues include engaging conversations with such writers and poets as Sven Birkerts, Jeffrey Eugenides, Terrance Hayes, A.M. Homes, Jonathan Lethem. Interviewers interested in publishing their work in TMR or in querying about interview subjects should contact us at email@example.com.