The leaves are falling en-masse, there’s a tiny pear-shaped gourd on my kitchen countertop, and I’m listening to an extremely relaxing ambient music album by Akito Misaki titled 9 Minutes. The album’s ten nine-minute tracks offer a combination of soft electronic drones, the natural sounds of singing birds and running water, and/or slow-bubbling synths. Misaki also makes some interesting textural decisions throughout: chords briefly strain against others in some places to produce a pleasant dissonance while synths fade in and out like elements of an early-morning dream. The album as a whole feels like listening to a 90-minute sunrise. I want to listen a few more times to see what emerges.
Over the years, Scot Sax has produced a wide range of exceptional music. From the ultra-polished pop perfection of his work as the front man for Wanderlust and Feel to his more homespun recordings as Bachelor Number One and as a solo artist, Scot has always brought equal parts compassion and energy to his music. His 2018 album Drawing from Memory was certainly a case in point. A collection of original songs evoking the best of 70s AM radio gold, the album found Scot echoing much of the music that likely inspired his lifelong appreciation of the well-wrought tune. With this year’s Playback is a Bitch, Scot is digging deeper, taking risks, and coming up with a blend of tracks that feels at once familiar and artistically satisfying.
The new album finds Scot getting a bit funky (not for the first time in his life) but also a bit trippy and dreamy at the same time. The dreamlike quality takes hold immediately with the first track, “Roller Wakes Up,” a thirty-six-second intro that sounds like the feeling of gradually returning to the waking world from a deep sleep. It transitions naturally into the album’s title track, which is where the funk starts to kick in — but not all at once. “Playback is Bitch” actually sounds like a throwback to the Monkees for the first few bars before a short blues riff introduces a bass-heavy dance groove. The rest of the album follows suit, drifting sweetly and soulfully between groovy beats and trippy, dreamy sojourns, like the instrumental “How Come There’s No Wind In Your Kite,” which gives way to the percolating, trumpet-laden “Fell in Love with Myself Again,” a true highlight of the album.
Not surprisingly, songwriting is at the heart of the album, both in terms of craft and as an over-arching theme. When Scot sings in “Two Sweethearts” that he has “exactly two minutes” to get out his thoughts, it’s easy to imagine he’s describing the job of tunesmiths everywhere, the unrelenting compulsion to distill the essence of a heart full of conflicting, confusing, overwhelming emotions down to the parameters of a radio-friendly pop song. It isn’t easy, and it also isn’t a science. As the penultimate track, a spoken-word recording titled “Roller’s Monologue,” makes clear, it’s a work of heart. Yes, there are people in the world who can boil songwriting down to a formula and treat it like a business. But as songwriters like Scot Sax show us time and time again, there are also people who are “out there singing to the clouds” (as the track’s narrator insists), artists driven by their sheer love of music. In the end, that’s exactly what Playback is a Bitch is all about.
PS: Playback is a Bitch is actually soundtrack! For more info, visit the film’s FB page: Playback is a Bitch.
Ayesha F. Hamid is a poet and creative nonfiction writer, published in Big Easy Review, Philly Flash Inferno, and Rathalla Review. Her full-length memoir, The Borderland Between Worlds, is available through Auctus Publishers at Barnes and Nobles, Amazon, and Target. Ayesha also has a full-length poetry collection called Waiting for Resurrection. Ayesha holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Publishing from Rosemont College. She also holds an M.A. in Sociology from Brooklyn College. She is the Editor-in-Chief at The City Key. Aside from writing, Ayesha also loves travel and photography.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on The Borderland Between Worlds. I’m always interested in a book’s journey, especially with an independent press. Can you tell us about your experience?
Ayesha F. Hamid: During my first year at Rosemont’s Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, I took my first creative nonfiction class with writer, Richard Bank. Richard used Socratic Method in his class, and this question and answer format of learning, in addition to writing assignments, showed me that I had a story to tell. The Borderland Between Worlds became my thesis for the MFA program.
A few years after graduation, Richard introduced me to Krish Singh, the founder of Auctus Publishers. I found out that the mission of Auctus Publishers was to encourage writers and their growth and to publish work that doesn’t fit neatly with commercial publishers. I’d interacted with a handful of agents and decided that, for my book, going with an independent publisher was the best fit because I’d be able to tell my story the way I wanted without the need to change the story to appeal to larger audiences. So, Auctus Publishers ended up being the perfect fit for my book.
CS: The book is your story as an immigrant from Pakistan, so there’s a personal story here, but your story is an echo of the larger immigrant experience. As you wrote, were you keeping an eye on both this micro level of your life and the wider, macro level? If so, was this dual lens there from the beginning or was there a moment when you realized this was both your story and a larger story? Can you tell us about the challenges of writing at these two levels?
AFH: Writing a memoir about immigration has been one of the most treasured experiences of my life. In writing a book like this, the writer realizes so much about themselves and the world around them.
In the beginning of the writing process, I was focused on my past and my story, but then, I realized that although the events in my life were unique to me, the struggles I faced were not. I wanted my book to speak to these common struggles and to speak for those who want to be understood and included. My book is also a tribute for those who cling tenaciously to a goal though it may seem impossible to achieve.
During the inception of this book, I proposed that its themes revolved around financial struggle and the struggle to fit in. The more I wrote and read my own story, the more I noticed that the conflicts, in my life, always arose from the struggle of being from two different cultures with varying beliefs and norms. The struggle of living up to the expectations of two cultures places an individual in what I call a borderland. This is a place where many immigrants, among others such as those with religious, racial, or gender differences, inhabit. It is the space where individuals find themselves when presented with myriad demands from disparate worlds, demands that seem too daunting to meet. Those who have to walk this line also have to battle with themselves to understand their place in their cultures and ultimately, their identity and their place in the world. Needless to say, the battle with oneself is the most difficult one.
The difficulty in writing about this topic, whether it be at the micro or macro level, is the subject matter itself. The more I realized that others lived through similar or worst experiences, the more disheartening it was. My struggles made me stronger, but it was a burden to realize that others, who were so similar to me, either gave up their fight or in some cases gave up their lives.
CS: Another duality you explore was witnessed in your day-to-day life. You went to school and worked in a distinctly American culture, but you often ended your days in a very traditional home. We all balance our private and public lives—but the balancing act must be harder when one navigates their way between two different, sometimes clashing, cultures. What was this experience like as a young person? How did it change as you grew?
AFH: This question is an emotional one. To be honest, to be a young person and live in two different cultures, whose goals oftentimes oppose each other, is crushing. In school, I wasn’t able to participate in class trips, school events, or hang out with friends after school like everyone else did. I had some wonderful friends that made adjustments for me, but living so differently from my peers left me, again, with the feeling that I did not belong and that I did not fit in. Friends tried to understand why I couldn’t spend time with them outside of school and tried to reserve judgment on why my parents’ culture made them so strict and concerned with their children’s safety.
One of the groups I want my book to speak for is immigrant children, or any children for that matter, that feel that they do not belong or fit in. Now that I am older, I have the freedom to choose what I want, whereas when I was younger, it felt like I didn’t have a choice. As I’ve grown older, I see that there is much common ground between all cultures in the world. Everyone wants safety and security. Education is a goal that is accepted in both American and South Asian cultures, and learning every day is an activity that I’ve gravitated towards my whole life.
CS: You tackle some very personal issues—bullying, a failed marriage, race, religion. When I speak to memoirists, I’m always interested in where they draw their lines—where does the writer’s story end and another person’s story begin. It’s a hard line to navigate, yet we each have to do it, and there’s no right answer. What boundaries/guidelines did you follow?
AFH: In all that I write about, including issues with bullying, marriage, race, and religion, I try to explain the reason or point of view of the person causing the conflict or the person supporting me. As writers know, we have to understand the why of action, so I try to explain others’ points of view as much as possible. However, I always return to my own vantage point to tell my story.
CS: Part of the book touches on the struggles of the working college student. I think many of my generation don’t fully understand the financial strain many students face these days. I work with students who carry a full schedule and then work twenty, thirty, forty hours a week. Can you tell us about this time of your life? What were your challenges? What did you discover about yourself?
AFH: Those years were very challenging and uncertain times for me. Like many other students, I worked a lot of hours to make sure that I had enough money for tuition.
Depending on the cost of attending school, scholarships and financial aid oftentimes doesn’t cover all expenses. A student’s bill for tuition may be twenty-five thousand dollars a year. Depending on how much financial aid covers, the student would still have to come up with living expenses and, sometimes, additional money for tuition.
During my college years, an additional challenge I faced was the fact that my family wasn’t familiar with how schooling worked in the United States. In Pakistan, my grandparents could cover my parents’ college expenses out of pocket, but, in America, most families, like my own, could no longer cover college expenses out of pocket. The college I went to, Chestnut Hill College, was heavily invested in students’ success, so the combination of helpful mentors and my own work made paying for attendance at a private college a possibility. My struggles, during that time, helped me to learn independence and how to work towards a goal. The experience made me a more tenacious person because no matter what, I was going to finish college, even though this goal seemed extremely untenable at times.
CS: You’re active in the Philadelphia literary community. I think Philly has great lit scene. Can you tell us about the community you see? What can it offer to writers both new and experienced?
AFH: From what I see, the Philadelphia literary community is very connected and supportive. I have had the benefit of being connected to different parts of the writing community through being a student at Rosemont College as well as having the opportunity to volunteer for Philadelphia Stories (www.philadelphiastories.org), which is a vital organization supporting the work of writers and artists in the Philadelphia area. What I love about our writing community is that we have serious writers who care about the craft and work tirelessly. The focus here is on writing and not on schools or cliques as I have heard it said of writing communities in other cities.
CS: What’s next?
AFH: I am looking forward to mentoring others as they write their own memoirs. I have a poetry collection that I am revising, and after revisions are completed, I’ll be looking for a publisher for the collection. After this work is complete, it will finally be time to embark on the new adventure of writing another book!
Clifford Garstang is the author of House of the Ancients and Other Stories, recently released by Press 53, as well as two previous story collections, In an Uncharted Country and What the Zhang Boys Know and a novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley. He is also the editor of the anthology series, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. A former international lawyer, he now lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. To learn more about Cliff, visit CliffordGarstang.com, and to learn more about his new story collection, visit Press53.com.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the House of the Ancients. You’ve published a couple collections with Press 53. Can you discuss your relationship with them? What rewards do you find with working with a publisher you’ve worked with before?
Clifford Garstang: I have been working with Press 53 since they published my first book in 2009 and I have a great relationship with the Publisher and Editor, Kevin Morgan Watson. It has gone beyond my own books, though. I remember going down to North Carolina to do some readings shortly after that first book came out, and as Kevin and I were driving down the highway I told him I thought a literary magazine would be a good fit for the press. Kevin said he’d been thinking the same thing, and by the time we got to the event we had worked out a lot of the details, including the name, Prime Number Magazine. I stepped down as editor of the magazine after five years, but it’s still going strong and will celebrate ten years of publishing this July. After my second book came out in 2012, I pitched an idea to Kevin for an anthology of stories set all over the globe. He loved the concept and the result was a three-volume series, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, which came out from 2014-2018. So when this new collection was ready, it was a no-brainer to take it Press 53. Kevin and I have become friends, I know what to expect from the process, and there are no surprises. I also know that Kevin knows short stories—he loves them—so it’s great to listen to his advice. But he’s also going to listen to what I have to offer, as well. I’ve also helped out with his new literary conference, the High Road Festival of Poetry and Short Fiction, as a contest judge, and other projects.
CS: I talk with my students about understanding the themes that obsess us—and I think that often we don’t really see them clearly until later in our careers. And once we understand these themes, we can work with them instead of wrestling blindly with them. You have a number of books under your belt now—can you identify any such themes in your work? If so, has the act of writing altered your understanding of these concepts?
CG: It’s great that you share that wisdom with your students, but my guess is they’ll have to rediscover that lesson on their own. First of all, I don’t usually start writing a story with a theme in mind. I start with a character, a situation, or an image, and let the story unfold organically. It can be messy, but eventually I’ll get wherever my subconscious is taking me and recognize what the story wants to be about—its theme. Then I can go back and revise so that the story’s elements generally point in the same direction. When I assembled my first story collection, which was linked by the setting of the stories and a number of recurring characters, I realized that they were also linked thematically. The next book, which was very different in terms of structure and setting, also dealt with some of the same themes. And the novel that came out last year does, too. I don’t think you have to be a psychiatrist to note that maybe, just maybe, I was saying something about myself by tackling those themes in three books. Now, though, I think maybe I’ve moved beyond them and am beginning to explore different subjects. Maybe.
CS: I enjoyed your novel last year from Braddock Avenue Books. With this collection coming so soon after that, I’m guessing that in the previous years, you went back and forth between that book and this collection. If this is the case, how do you approach balancing two projects in various stages of completion? Do you work on one as long as it’s calling you then put it away and return to it when it calls you again? Or do you set aside specific periods of time and give yourself guidelines to follow? What are the rewards and challenges of having a couple projects versus having a singular focus?
CG: I have a complicated to answer to what you probably thought was a straightforward question. The novel that came out last year was a long time in the making, but then so was the story collection. There was a point at which I was writing two books at the same time—sometimes working on one in the morning and one in the afternoon—but the new collection of stories wasn’t one of them, at least not as a fully imagined collection. Some of the stories were written more than ten years ago and some were written last year. But more or less simultaneously I had an idea for two different novels, and I was pushing them both forward until I realized how insane that was. I put one of them aside to focus on the novel that became The Shaman of Turtle Valley, the book that Braddock Avenue Books published in 2019. But it takes time to find an agent and then a publisher, so while that was happening I returned to the other novel and also kept writing short stories, although still without thinking of them as a collection. Finally, when Shaman was under contract and I had also found a publisher for the other novel (it’s coming out from Regal House Publishing in 2021), I was able to look at the stories I had that were finished—most of them already published in magazines—and several that were still in draft form and start putting together a complete manuscript. When I was happy with it, I sent it to Press 53 and they took it. It’s an accident of the publishing industry that it’s coming out now, a year before the other novel, when it was finished more recently. But to actually answer your question, I don’t think working on two novels at once is really tenable. On the other hand, writing short stories can provide a great break if you need to get away from a longer project for a while, which is often advisable. And of course there are times when you’re just waiting for something to happen—for an agent to get back to you on a query, or for a publisher to read your manuscript—and you need to be doing something. For me, that would be writing.
CS: You’re very involved in the literary community—and I assume you get a lot of hits for your annual ranking of literary journals. First, when did you start doing this ranking—and what motivated you? Can you explain the process of how you compile the rankings? And then a question about the literary community in general—do you see one’s involvement in it as a privilege? An obligation? What hopes do you have for our community in these strange times? And speaking of strange times, can you address the challenges—and perhaps the unique opportunities—to releasing a book now?
CG: So many questions! To start, I’ve been doing my rankings of literary magazines for something like 15 years. It began as a tool for my process of deciding where to submit my short stories, because until then I was using a scattershot approach without giving it much thought, or rather, my choices were based on hearing from other writers that Magazine X is “good” or Magazine Y might like my work. Logic told me that I needed to be more systematic. It made sense to submit to the best magazines first, but how was I supposed to know what those were? Eventually I hit upon a formula that took into account the number of Pushcart Prizes and Special Mentions a magazine had won over a ten-year period. I settled on the Pushcart Prize, as opposed to the annual O. Henry or Best American Stories volumes, because I liked the way stories are nominated by magazines and contributing editors, which somehow made it feel more democratic than the other prizes. And I felt that my formula was as objective as I could make it. Yes, the editors are subjective when making their selections, but I’m not letting anything else influence the rankings such as my own feelings about the work that a magazine might be publishing. Initially, I only ranked magazines for fiction because that was what I was writing. I shared the list with friends and then, realizing that others might benefit, I posted the list on my website. Eventually I created separate lists for nonfiction and poetry as well as fiction, and I’ve been doing all three for at least ten years. (Another advantage of using the Pushcart Prize anthology is that it contains work in all three genres.) Second, I do think writers have an obligation to serve the greater literary community in some way. I do book reviews for the same reason, and I always post about books I’ve read on Goodreads, and sometimes on Amazon also. Especially for writers who aren’t published by the mega-presses, it’s hard to get noticed by the reading public. We can all do more to lift each other up by doing reviews and interviews (thank you, by the way!), and spreading the word. My advocacy on this subject isn’t entirely selfless, of course. I’m hopeful that while I’m talking about other people’s books, maybe someone else is doing the same for me. But another reason I still do the rankings is that I get a little thrill when I meet someone at AWP or an artists’ colony and they thank me when they discover I’m “that guy” who does the rankings. And third, boy these are strange times indeed. Personally I’m very fortunate because I’m not as severely impacted by the isolation we’re experiencing because of the pandemic as many others. I don’t teach, so I’m mostly just doing what I always did, which is writing at home. If anything, I’m more disciplined now that I can’t visit my favorite coffee shops. But like a lot of people, I’m using Zoom to stay in touch with friends and my book club and even to promote the new book. That’s maybe not a bad thing. I recently joined another writer for a reading from our new story collections. It was a Zoom meeting streamed live on our publisher’s Facebook page, so we had way more people watching than I’ve ever had at one of my bookstore events. Plus, the video is still on Facebook and I’ve sent it to some people as part of my promotional efforts. I will always love visiting independent bookstores and meeting with readers, but the way we do events may have changed forever.
CS: As a consumer, how is the experience of reading stories and novels different for you? Do they hit different parts of your brain? Do they stay with you in the same way? When you’re writing stories, do you find yourself focusing on reading stories? Then let’s switch to the writer’s perspective—how is the process different for you? What do you find rewarding (and challenging) about the creation of each of these forms?
CG: I’m not sure I’m capable of answering this question from a consumer’s point of view anymore, because I’m always reading as a writer, looking at different aspects of craft and structure. With stories, especially, I’m looking for certain elements, as if I’m preparing to critique a student’s work (never mind that the student’s name might be James Joyce), and judging it by what I see or don’t see. I’m pretty sure non-writers don’t look at short stories that way, if they read them at all. As a writer, I don’t narrow my reading to the particular form I’m working on, unless there’s some structural peculiarity I might learn something from. Also, I usually have several books I’m reading at the same time—poetry, nonfiction, a novel, a story collection, sometimes a book on the craft of writing. Plus an audio book in the car (currently a memoir). As for the process of writing, I’m a bit schizophrenic. With stories, I have a pretty clear picture of the structure I want before I start, but I have no idea what the ending will be. With the novels I’ve written, the ending is just about the only thing I can picture in advance, and then I’m trying to write toward it. For me, one of the biggest challenges for both forms is deciding where the best entry point for the reader should be. That is, at what point on the timeline of the story do you put page 1? The answer in both cases might be to drop the reader into the work at a point where things are already happening, even if, as a writer, you’ve written pages and pages or thousands of words to get yourself to that point. Those aren’t wasted words, I keep telling myself, but the reader might not need to ever see them.
CS: What’s next?
CG: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve got another book coming out, a novel, to be released by Regal House Publishing in spring of 2021. I like to think of it as a mystery, because the protagonist discovers a family secret that no one will talk to him about. As a philosopher obsessed with the source of knowledge, he travels the world in search of this hidden truth. So there’s that. But I’m also pretty far along with a new project, the most ambitious book I’ve attempted so far. It’s a blended historical and contemporary novel set in Asia that deals with unequal power dynamics in a variety of relationships. Some days I think I’m close to finishing that book. This is not one of those days.