Curtis Smith Interviews Nathan Leslie

22549633_522133205628_7304897055222373920_nNathan Leslie recently won the 2019 Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize for fiction for his book Hurry Up and Relax, which will be published on Oct. 15, 2019. Leslie’s nine previous books of fiction include Three Men, Root and Shoot, Sibs, and The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice. He is also the author of a collection of poems, Night Sweat. Nathan is currently the series editor for Best Small Fictions, the founder and organizer of the Reston Reading Series in Reston, Virginia, and the publisher and editor of the new online journal Maryland Literary Review. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, Julie.

Curtis Smith: First of all, congratulations on winning the 2019 Fiction Award from The Washington Writers’ Publishing House. Winning a contest is great—but I know a lot of writers struggle with the question of whether or not to pay a fee and submit to contests. What’s your experience been? What advice would you offer younger writers who are considering a book-length contest?

Nathan Leslie: Curtis, thank you so much for the opportunity to chat with you. It is a high honor. Great first question–as a writer who is also an editor I think a lot about the logistical side of submitting. I do try to enter maybe five to ten contests a year. The expenses obviously add up and the likelihood of winning is small, but for the book-length contests it is worth the risk and investment, in my view. The reason for this that it is difficult these days to find an open reading period and for $25 to $30 I can provide some small support to a press and get a fair read. That said, I try to be picky regarding which contests to enter. I certainly avoid entering just to enter and I try to find a press I admire and one with which I feel as if I have a fighting chance. This was the case with WWPH. Though I had failed to win the contest several (many) times before, I received positive feedback regarding my last contest entry a few years ago and felt as if I had a decent chance. Essentially, I got lucky. But all it takes is one stroke of luck. I mean, I can accept rejection on 99 manuscript submissions as long as I receive a YES on 1. As for individual short story or poem contests, I usually stay away. It’s a personal preference perhaps. Certainly being published by a top tier magazine, for instance, would be wonderful, but the odds are stacked against any one individual work and I simply suspect that more writers enter these contests, making the likelihood of acceptance that much slimmer. Of course, entering contests is also a way of supporting presses and literary magazines–which is another reason to enter a few. As a sidebar, I’m personally, however, not a supporter of paying $3 for a Submittable fee for more for a regular submission to a literary magazine. I do it on a rare occasion, but mostly I find it to be an annoying practice. It’s one thing to establish a prize and charge a fee where the winner of the prize receives publication and prize money. It’s another thing entirely to charge a reading fee. Reading fees used to be frowned upon in a big way but now many have come to accept them as the new paradigm. I generally find the claim that one would pay $3 to the USPS anyway for a print submission to be a specious argument. Why? 1. For years authors were able to submit via e-mail for free via e-mail. And 2. Paying $3 to send a submission via snail mail is not sending the money directly to the magazine and/or a corporate entity (Submittable). To me it is clearly unethical that authors should be charged by a literary magazine for regular (non-prize) submissions as a (sneaky) way to fund their magazine, and the many magazines who do this should be ashamed of themselves. It is an unfair burden placed on authors. Ten years ago this practice would have never been accepted, but now it has become normalized as a result of Submittable’s footprint specifically. So it is fair to say that literary submissions have been corporatized. It ain’t right.

bsf coverCS: You’ve published novels and poetry as well as short fiction. In the sense of approach—the hours you spend at your desk—how do these ventures differ? Is there a unique mindset or set of strategies for each genre? What are the commonalities?

NL: I tend to focus on short fiction and flash fiction, primarily. I just find the short story to be so efficient and inherently elegant. That said, over the last few years I have ventured more and more into short novels and novellas (I have two completed novels I am shopping around, for instance). Novels, for me, take an expanse of uninterrupted time, even if the novel is on the shorter side. I have difficulties writing a novel when I’m teaching, for instance. Too many interruptions to remain “in the flow,” so to speak. For a novel, I need several months in the summer when I can focus solely on my writing. Short stories and flash fiction (and poetry) I can work on at any point during the year. The mindset is completely different because I’m writing several thousand words as opposed to sixty thousand plus. Also, even if the characterization is equally complex, the plotting of a short story tends to be much more streamlined and less intricate and it’s the plot that, for me, takes the most energy and attention. I tend to write flash fiction and short fiction throughout the year, especially revising and tweaking stories that I compose in the summer. So for me there is a seasonal nature to writing. Compose mostly in the summer and then revise and tweak and develop in the fall through spring.

CS: You’re very active in the literary community. You run a reading series and you’ve edited a number of anthologies. I’m sure these things are time consuming—they must take attention away from your writing—but I’m guessing they also come with rewards, both expected and not. Can you talk a bit about these ventures and what you get out of them?

NL: Thank you for noticing. I do have a number of pots on the stove currently and for me what is fun about that is they all kind of feed into one another. Let me start with Best Small Fictions. In the Spring of 2018 Tara Masih asked if I wanted to take the BSF reins and I said heck yes! I had been a fan of the project for several years and it was and is an amazing opportunity. I’m sure I have spent more time on Best Small Fictions in 2019 than any other project, but it is a labor of love and it is just so exciting to have the opportunity to consider and weigh in on the best flash fiction out there. I lost track of how many individual pieces I read for BSF 2019, but I’m sure it was over three thousand thousand in number. Also, for Best Small Fictions 2019 we branched out to include many, many international works. This was not always the case before–previous incarnations of BSF tended to be more American-centric. BSF 2019, on the other hand, is an anthology of world literature. This makes it a tremendously exciting anthology. The thing is BSF is a collaborative effort so I must mention my editorial board members, staff and also specifically my terrific assistant editor Michelle Elvy who stuck by me during some notable changes in publisher and structure, Elena Stiehler the wonderful publisher at Sonder Press, and also Rilla Askew who served as guest editor. In addition to this I also have my own small literary biannual, Maryland Literary Review, which has been a great way to stay active as a fan and reader of contemporary poetry, short fiction and creative nonfiction. I began this project last spring, and though we are new I believe folks have enjoyed what we have published so far. Lastly, I have a monthly reading series Reston Readings, in Reston, Virginia which has been in existence for three plus years now. With all three of these editorial/organization projects, I most appreciate two specific facets. First of all, it is nice to give back to the literary community by giving other writers an opportunity. Without lit mags, small presses and and a decent reading series or three, contemporary literature would dry up. We live in what seems to be an increasingly ignorant age; I view these projects as a kind of buffer perhaps. Secondly, on a selfish note, when I can step back and put on my editor or organizer hat I can also step back and enjoy the words themselves and learn from them. It’s important to find inspiration not only in the world itself and my own self-generated concerns and inspirations, but also in the creations of others. Why? Because on some conscious or subconscious level the creativity of others seeps into my own writing. I am not an island. I find sustenance and inspiration in what others are up to also. This was the case big time with BSF–not only did I have the chance to accept for publication so many authors from all over the world, but I also gained exposure to so many authors whose work I was not familiar with. I learned a ton.

leslie cvr.frontCS: I really enjoyed Hurry Up and Relax. There’s a lot of comedy here—which I admire because comedy is hard to write (for me at least). But it’s not always a comfortable comedy—we have the stress of living too close to one another, the sterile lives of office, tired marriages, simmering frustrations, the imperfect science of making connections. Are there certain comedic elements you look for when mapping out a piece? In the end, what tone do you find your work gravitating toward?

NL: This collection is quite different for me in some regards. Though I have embraced satirical/comedic elements in some of my previous collections and in Tommy Twice, for instance, it was certainly not the main thrust of my writing. For this collection, something shifted. We live in such a surreal world now where, thanks to the internet and social media in part, unheard of events happen all the time. Bizarre attitudes and theories are deployed on a daily basis. Crazy is seemingly the new not-crazy. So it wasn’t exactly difficult to tap into some of this absurdity–I just opened my ears. That’s the scary part: though it seems as if Hurry Up and Relax is satirical (and it is), in many respects it’s actually just a reflection of reality. That said, I have a companion collection of stories that I have been shopping around, also (and which I composed during the same time, over the last few years). This book, A Fly in the Ointment, is primarily gritty-realist in tone and mood. I have room to embrace both approaches to fiction (as well as others). I suppose I am easily bored and if I just do the same thing over and over again, what’s the point? I want to push myself aesthetically.

CS: I admired the dialogue in these stories. I think I noticed that because I labor over my own use of dialogue. Do conversations between your characters flow for you or do you wrestle with it? What standards have you developed for yourself in terms of how your characters speak?

NL: Thank you so much. It is a difficult question to answer with any semblance of absolute clarity. For me dialogue is more intuitive than anything else and rooted in characterization. I do consciously wrangle with dialogue, but I also believe dialogue simply is an expression of character and having a clear sense of who I am writing about. That’s the most important component of dialogue for me. I’m not sure I have any specific standards for the dialogue that I write other than I do want it to sound authentic. That is vital–nothing is worse than canned dialogue where it feels as though the author is telegraphing. Dialogue is notoriously tricky. I guess at the end of the day I would say that is more about feel and nuance and ear than anything else.

CS: Let me ask another craft question. Some of the questions a writer asks of a piece are the basics—should this be first or third person—should it be present or past tense. In this collection, you alternate between these. When do these basic constraints come to you? What elements draw you toward one or the other? Why is it important for a writer to have all these different lenses in their toolbox?

NL: Not every story is the same, of course. Some stories call for first person present, others call for third person attached past. It just depends on what I am trying to achieve. For me it is so important to be able to vary my approach depending on my intent. I probably gravitate a bit more towards first person than any other point of view, just because I like to work within the voice and allow the voice of the character to be up front. However, in my last book–Three Men (2017)–I wrote all three of the novellas in the third person. I just like the variety.

CS: What’s next?

NL: Well, I have a few books of fiction (two novels and two short story collections) that I’m shopping around for possible 2020 or 2021 publication. I am also working on a lot of new flash fiction and short fiction as well as on some prose poems (more prose than poetry–proems?). In addition, I have been writing some satirical pieces in the non-fiction vein recently. I will continue on with Best Small Fictions 2020 (nominations open up later in the fall), Maryland Literary Review and Reston Readings. I think with all of those projects in the mix I should be able to stay out of trouble.

Curtis Smith Interviews Tawni Waters

Screen Shot 2019-03-19 at 5.05.24 PMTawni Waters’s debut novel, Beauty of the Broken, was released by Simon and Schuster in 2014. In addition to winning the prestigious International Literacy Association’s Award for Young Adult Literature, it won the Housatonic Book Award, was named an exceptional book of 2015 by the Children’s Book Council, was shortlisted for the Reading the West Book Award, and was included on the Kansas State Reading Circle List. It was adapted for the stage and performed by Sacramento’s Now Here This and is being adapted for the screen by Jeff Arch, the screenwriter best known for writing Sleepless in Seattle. Her second novel, The Long Ride Home, was released by Sourcebooks Fire in September 2017 to glowing reviews. She is the author of two poetry collections: Siren Song (Burlesque Press) and So Speak the Stars (Texture Press). Her work has been anthologized in Best Travel Writing 2010, The Soul of a Great Traveler, and Monday Nights, and has been published in myriad journals and magazines. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans and teaches creative writing at various universities and writers retreats throughout the U.S., Europe, and Mexico.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on So Speak the Stars. I’m always interested in the history of a book, especially in the indie realm. How did you end up with Texture Press?

Tawni Waters: Thanks so much, Curt! I first met Valerie Fox, who is an editor at Texture, when I was writer-in-residence at Rosemont College. PS Books was hosting a launch for Valerie’s gorgeous book, Insomniatic, at Rosemont, and they asked me to act as emcee and interview Valerie at the launch.  I fell in love with Valerie’s work then.  I also really liked her as a human being.

I saw her again a year or so later when she was speaking on a publishing panel, just as I was beginning to compile the pieces in So Speak the Stars. I knew we had similar aesthetics, so I asked her if I could send the book to Texture when it was ready, and she enthusiastically said yes.  When it was finished, I sent it to her immediately.  I didn’t send it to any other publishers.  I just had a kismet-y feeling about the whole thing.  A few months later, while I was touring Europe with my mother, I got an email from Valerie saying all of the people at Texture were in love with the book, and the rest, as they say, is history.  

CS: In your forward, you state that much of this work came from a place/time of personal reexamination. Often times, such periods are a mess, but you managed to take those challenges and wrestle a book from them. Can you look back and identify the external elements at play and the desires within that led to this cycle of work?

TW: I think the most obvious external element at play is that for all intents and purposes, I was homeless while I was writing this book.  I gave up my house to travel full time and examine my life, which creates a certain level of instability outside oneself, but a wonderful, if chaotic, coherence within.  Because when you aren’t being defined by your day-to-day roles, your possessions, your routines, all you have to define you is yourself.  So the messy truth within comes bubbling to the surface to tell you all about who you really are, when nobody is expecting you to be anything but you.

I was in a place of intense grief as I wrote this.  I’d lost just about everything that defined me, including the great love of my life.  I can see now that the pain was a gift, because it made me grow like never before, but I didn’t see it that way then.  I haven’t had a particularly easy life (have any of us?), but this was the only time in my life I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to survive.  I think half of these poems were silent screams, because it’s not cool to scream out loud when you’re in a youth hostel in Edinburg or in a double-decker bus on your way to Germany.

I’m reading Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed right now, and in that book, she writes of her own great loss, “The strange and painful truth is I’m a better person because I lost my mom young. When you say you experience my writing as sacred what you are touching is that divine place within me that is my mother. Sugar (the persona she took while writing the book) is the temple I built to my obliterated place.” I cried when I read those words.  That’s what these poems in So Speak the Stars are. A temple I built to my obliterated place.

CS: The collection alters between poems and short prose pieces—many of which blur the boundary between poetry and fiction. I’m always interested in form and the decisions a writer must make. Where in the process do you realize the form a piece is going to take? Do you know from the beginning? Or do you need to get to know the piece a bit first? Do you ever start out thinking you’re writing a poem and then realize it needs to be a story (or vice versa)? Is there something internal within the piece that demands to be rendered one way or the other?

TW: I am not one of those writers who systematically sits down to write with an agenda. I write when I hear something (a beautiful turn of phrase, a song) or see something (a glint in the eye of a lake, a paper bag trapped by a fence) and feel I must write about it that minute.  Or I’m in bed staring at the ceiling, feeling something so intensely I have to do something with it, and the only thing I’m really good at doing with the things I feel is making words out of them.  (I promise, you don’t want to watch me try to dance out my feelings.) So I do what I’m relatively good at. I turn my feelings into words.

I usually barf whatever needs to come out on paper, however it wants to come out, and then, I look more closely at the form.  To answer your question, yes, sometimes, I initially write a piece with line breaks, and I realize after it’s written that the line breaks are getting in the way of the flow of the writing.  And sometimes, I write a piece as prose and realize it needs line breaks to slow it down.

To be honest, genre has never felt like a very real barrier to me.  It feels artificial.  I teach writing in all kinds of venues, and students are always like, “Oh, my god, I’m a fiction writer.  I could never write poetry.”  Like the difference between fiction writers and poets is the difference between bears and fish.  Like you need gills or some other special apparatus to write poetry.  Really, writing is writing.  If you can write one form well, you can write all of them well.  And all genres inform the others.  I am a better fiction writer because I write poetry.  I am a better poet because I write fiction.  I am a better creative nonfiction writer because I write both poetry and fiction.  But once you get the essence of a piece down, you can use form to enhance the essence.  At least that’s how I see it.

CS: You’ve previously published another poetry collection and two novels. How does your writing regime differ for these kinds of ventures?

TW: For me, the creation of the poetry is always a bit more chaotic than the creation of a novel.  You can write a poem in a short burst and then be done with the subject matter, but as you know, to write a novel, you have to sustain the inertia within a particular piece for years at a time, which can be a huge challenge.  It took me over a decade to write Beauty of the Broken, whereas I can generate the first draft of a poem in a night.  I think, for that reason, writing poetry is easier for me, which is why I wrote it while I was on the road, grappling with self and big questions.  I didn’t have what it took to focus on a novel length idea.

In other news, I always feel like when I channel my truth into novel form, it is diluted in some ways, which is good for certain situations, but not for the one I was in while I was writing these poems. I didn’t want to dilute my emotions by giving them to characters who were not me, by morphing my experience of the world into other people’s stories.  The things I was feeling were too intense for that.  I needed them to come out undiluted.  I needed to leave pretense behind, to leave a through-line behind, and just channel whatever came, as it came.

CS: We’re taken back to the image of Mary Magdalene a number of times here. What is it about her character that fascinates (and motivates) you?

TW: To me, Mary Magdalene is sort of a metaphor for what has happened to femininity in our world.  If you read the early Christian writings, she was considered to be a wise woman, Jesus’s primary disciple, a person of great depth, status, and power.  Now, all we know of her is that she was a whore.

And I think that is what our world has done to all women, to the concept of femininity at large.  Women have all of this wisdom, all of this strength, all of this depth and vision, and we have been reduced to bikini wearing props in beer commercials.  I write about Mary Magdalene in an  attempt to give her full personhood and power, and in so doing, I restore the power of femininity to myself.  When I heal her, when I re-vision her story, I retell the story of what it means to be a woman in the world.  I heal the powerful, divine, feminine part of me that was reduced to a sex object, by virtue of the nature of this world.

One of the poems in the book, “Magdalene’s Kintsugi,” was actually inspired by a reading you gave of one of your essays.  Your reading was gorgeous, and for a moment, you talked about how Mary Magdalene had brought a year’s worth of wages to the Christ in her alabaster jar.  I was moved by the reading, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it afterward.  I asked myself what Magdalene would have to say about her year’s worth of wages, how she would tell the story of her alabaster jar if she could tell it.  And the answer came out as a poem.

Incidentally, I was lucky enough to live in a medieval village in France for a summer during the writing of these poems.  The village happened to be about an hour away from the place legend says Mary Magdalene ran after the Christ was crucified.  I didn’t plan it that way.  It just happened. So I think my interest in her was intensified by proximity.  Also, Magdalene, in many of the paintings we see of her, is the woman who wailed at the feet of the Christ after his crucifixion.  I had just lost the love of my life, and it felt like that.  The pain I saw in her face in those paintings felt like my pain.  I could do something with my pain when I married it to hers and made it bigger than myself. And I had to do something with the pain, or it was going to kill me.

CS: The book is divided into themed sections. When did this structure come to you? Did you have this overreaching vision to start and then write toward it? Or did the structure arise from the work itself? Sometimes our subconscious understands things before we realize it.

TW: I wrote these poems over a five-year period, and I think I realized I was writing a collection called So Speak the Stars about two years in.  I wrote many of these poems at night, in various cities—Paris and Prague and San Miguel de Allende and Nashville.  Every day, the scenery and people around me changed.  But the one thing that remained constant was the stars, so I looked at them, and made them my friends, and asked them the big questions I was asking.  Who am I? What is the point of all this? Will I ever see the great love of my life again?  And as I asked the questions, the poems came, and sometimes, it felt like the stars were answering me.

I didn’t come up with the structure until I was sitting on the porch at Rosemont College during their annual summer retreat drinking whiskey with Grant Clauser and a bunch of other writers. Grant is one of the best damned poets I’ve ever seen, so I maybe a little drunkenly asked him for advice on how to compose a poetry manuscript.  Grant wrote this blog in answer to my question, and it made the whole process of compiling the pieces make sense for me.

As I thought about his advice, I realized that as I traveled and wrote So Speak the Stars, I had changed.  I had begun my travels in a state of great weakness and finished in a place of true strength.  So when I began compiling the manuscript, I started at the end, like Grant suggested, with the most powerful poem in the book, because I wanted to end in a place of power.  And then I worked my way backward, and as I did, I realized there were three distinct phases represented in the work.  A place of true weakness, a place of beginning to find my strength, and a place of power.  So I came up with star-related concepts that expressed those emotional states.  Black Hole, Protostar, and Big Bang.  And then, when Desiree Wade, the illustrator (and my daughter) came into the picture, we decided she would illustrate one poem for each section, as well as creating a final image for the book.

CS: The artwork is wonderful—tell us about working on this aspect of the book with your daughter. And you also dip into a bit of graphic storytelling, which is its own art form. What did you learn from this type of writing? Is it anything you can take from this graphic-centered experience and use when you return to your next novel?

TW: Isn’t it awesome? I’m a proud Momma, and I know I may be biased, but my Desiree Wade is the best artist I’ve ever known. I still have the first picture she drew, when she was two.  She told me it was a seal, and damn if it didn’t look like a real seal.  She never put down her pencil again.  She was obsessed with drawing the way I am with writing.  She did it from morning until night every day.  We are best friends, so we’ve always talked about doing a collaboration together.

When I was in Europe with my mother, just before Valerie wrote to tell me Texture wanted to publish So Speak the Stars, Desi happened to send me that gorgeous picture that ended up being the cover of the book, because she always sends me her drawings.  When Texture accepted the book, I asked Desi if we could use the drawing for a cover.  She said we could, and Texture loved her work. Valerie had the brilliant idea of asking Desi to illustrate some of the poems as graphic novel panels.

After that, Desi and I had two really intense months, sitting in coffee shops together, talking about the book, sifting through ideas.  But I can’t say I contributed much to Desi’s process.  She came up with all the concepts for the illustrations.  For instance, the poem “1400 Montgomery Avenue” is actually about my time living at Rosemont, in the “castle” at the center of the campus.  I was always alone in that great big building at night, and outside my window, all these college kids were partying and drinking and dancing, so I wrote about the experience. But Desi saw the sentence, “This is the miracle tree in which I have built my nest for now,” and drew a whole story involving a living, feminine tree.  It was stunning.  So I just kinda sat there and watched her make her magic.  I won’t lie.  It wasn’t all hearts and rainbows.  We were about to strangle each other some days, but we’ve forgotten all that, as you often forget pain after giving birth.  All you see is the miracle.  So we want to do another book together, a whole book, with all of the poems illustrated in graphic novel form.  I think we woke up a monster.

CS: What’s next?

TW: I’m about two thirds of the way done with a memoir about my time living on the road, called Butterfly Fucking (A Memoir-ish). It’s so outrageously titled because at the beginning of my travels, I saw two butterflies mating in the center of the street in New Orleans, and the image stuck with me.  The book is about my struggle to find true self beneath sexualization, and really, about the objectification of women in general, so it’s a very sex-centered memoir.  But I hope a deep and meaningful one too.  I showed it to a friend who is an accomplished memoirist, and she loved it, and offered to connect me with an editor friend of hers who is interested in acquiring new memoirs, so hopefully, it has a future. I’m also working on getting my rock-n-roll novel, Empire of Dirt, into the world. I’ve worked on it for 15 years, and it’s a huge piece of my heart, so I really want to find it a home.

To learn more about Tawni Waters, visit her website,, or friend her on Facebook at


“Titles Come to Me First”: Curtis Smith Interviews Randall Brown

50894920_882449192134963_9070531687141605376_nRandall Brown is the author of Mad to Live, a collection that sold out in a month and was reprinted by PS Books as a Deluxe Edition. His work appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash FictionThe Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction, Grey House’s Critical Insights: American Short Story & Critical Insights: Flash Fiction and The Norton Anthology of Microfiction. Recent publications include I Might Never Learn (Finishing Line Press, 2018) and “How Long is Forever” (Running Wild Press, 2018). He has been published and anthologized widely, both online and in print, in places such as American Short Fiction, Mississippi Review, Cream City Review, Harpur Palate, and Chicago Quarterly Review. He is the founder and managing editor of FlashFiction.Net, Matter Press, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA from Vermont College and recently retired from Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, a tenure that included a three-year stint as the program’s director.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on I Might Never Learn. I’m always interested in a book’s journey, especially in the indie press world. How did you end up with Finishing Line Press? How was the experience?

Randall Brown: A submission to their yearly chapbook contest led to an invitation to publish with them. They’ve been easy and wonderful to work with. Shout out to Leah Maines, Mimi David, Jacqueline Steelman, and Christen Kincaid.

CS: You’ve published hundreds of flash fiction pieces, but now you have a book of poems and you’ve recently published a novella. Were these other forms always in the back of your mind—or have you surprised yourself with this exploration into other genres? Were these shifts difficult?

RB: I started writing the novella thirty-five years ago (give or take a few years). At the ripe old age of twenty-three, having decided and been told that I was not born to be a writer, I gave up and turned to other things. At the age of forty, with a brand spanking new MFA, the idea returned. Anxiety-wise, I could last about 1000 words before the uncertainty of finding the right word after right word overwhelmed me. Eventually, I started a novel in my therapist’s office, stopping to write down and discuss each thought that stopped my fingers in mid-type. After a long winter break, I returned to his office, dropped a folder on his desk, and said, “It’s done.” He cried. That novella soon followed. As to the poems, I always dreamed of being a poet like Robert Frost or Anne Sexton. Instead, I became a different one, one who write poems in prose.

CS: As you ventured into these new areas, what have you learned—about the forms you’re working with and about yourself? Has your style changed at all due to the things you’ve discovered along the way?

RB: Well, in novels and novellas, things have to happen. Sadly. In poetry, the opposite (for me) was true: I stripped them of narrative. Somewhere in the middle is flash fiction.

CS: You have a gift for capturing big pictures with little gestures—and for saying things with words unsaid. Can you explain how these structures come to you? Do you cast a wider net with your initial drafts then boil things down to their essence—or do the little things come to you first and do you then later realize what they’re trying to say to you?

RB: Thanks so much. Titles come to me first. I keep a list based on fragments from songs, overheard conversations, poems, British baking shows. Here’s a sample:

  • Must Be the Cocktail Sauce
  • On the Wrong Side of Firm
  • It Tastes Like Mystery
  • In My Defense
  • Don’t Tell Her It Isn’t So
  • It Isn’t So
  • Quiet Company
  • Without a Little Help
  • The Past Leaks Out
  • You Look Removed
  • She’s Lonely, Man
  • You’re Dead, Cold Button
  • Lap of the Gods
  • Once It’s in the Oven
  • The Shame of This Body

CS: In looking at the size and form of the pieces in I Might Never Learn, they appear little different than your flash fiction pieces. Having read a lot of your flash, I can feel a different vibe here, but I’m wondering if you can pinpoint what makes these, in your mind, fall into the realm of poetry more so than fiction?

RB: I adapted an exercise from Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town. I began by choosing a text and borrowing some of its nouns, verbs, and adjectives—ten of each. And so I ended up with a list like this one:


  1. set-up
  2. session
  3. experience
  4. disorder
  5. device
  6. results
  7. machine
  8. appointment
  9. technology
  10. company


  1. guide
  2. welcome
  3. hope
  4. review
  5. needed
  6. arrange
  7. order
  8. set
  9. recommend
  10. attach


  1. quick
  2. positive
  3. testing
  4. additional
  5. breathing
  6. follow-up
  7. tracking
  8. better
  9. unusual
  10. routine

I kind-of followed his advice.

Use five nouns, verbs, and adjectives from the above lists and write a poem as follows:

  • Four beats to the line (can vary)
  • Six lines to the stanza
  • Three stanzas
  • At least two internal and one external slant rhyme per stanza (full rhymes acceptable but not encouraged)
  • Maximum of two end stops per stanza
  • Clear English grammatical sentences (no tricks).
  • All sentences must make sense.
  • The poem must be meaningless.

I ended up with something like this. (It makes more sense than Hugo suggests. I had just been diagnosed with sleep apnea, so it was on my mind.)

The machines arranged better

breathing, welcomed the unusual

company. They attached themselves

to your disorder.


Your results recommended

follow-up. You were set-up for

additional experiences, unusual



A session player for this routine,

the set ordered for quick review:

A thousand times, sleep after sleep

your brain lost track


of the muscles, your breath

forgotten its appointment.

All those gasps, waking me up,

All that drowning

And then I turned it into prose and edited. In its final version, it became “Apnea” from the chapbook:

The daylong fatigue can be explained—not a lack of spinach, an ear drop, an allergy to mold, a fear of clown cones, a willful refusal. The tiny machines arrange better breathing, complete with temperature control. Lungs welcome the unusual company, attaching themselves to this engineering. The results recommend further sessions. Your brain fires itself. This autonomy complicates sleep like incandescence. Sleep after sleep your brain lost its grounding. Your breath forgot its monotony. All those thousand secret gasps, all that drowning.

In making that turn to prose, I added a bit more information about the “character” (daylong fatigue and the explanations he’s come up for it). What makes it poetry? In John Dufresne’s FLASH!: Writing the Very Short Story, he has a prompt that throughout spurs the reader toward a deeper narrative; for example, Where are we? And when, what year? What season? What time of day? This central character must want something. What is that? Why does she want it? The motivation should be intense. There must be something at stake. Who or what is in conflict with the central character? In other words, what are the obstacles in the central character’s way? What will prevent her from getting what she wants? How will she struggle? Will she get what she wants? What are the moments of complication? Climax?

I didn’t ask those questions. Instead, I let sound and word association lead me from sentence to sentence: clown cones, control, complete, company. Words lean toward each other, slanted, like willful & refusal, results & sessions, itself & incandescence, monotony and drowning. Lines such as “Your brain fires itself” were chosen for their varied meanings. The brain fires itself both like a synapse and like a boss (quitting the job of controlling breathing). Daylong, sleep after sleep, thousand borrow something learned from Anne Sexton’s “Young” to create this hyperbolic sense of time.

And one cannot underestimate (only at one’s peril does one do so) the effects of Russian formalism upon this collection; namely, what Charles Baxter describes as follows: “a given sentence, far from following its predecessor or preparing the way for the sentence that follows, remains relatively autonomous, continuity being provided by word and sound repetition as well as by semantic transfer, in what the Russian Formalists called the ‘orientation toward the neighboring word.” For example, here’s a section from a piece in the collection:

The creek-side ranch tilts on its sunken stilts. Mom’s dyed voice, yellow like alarm clocks, cannot compel her Ford Falcon, clutched with desire, to turn over. No one is going out anymore.

There is “surprise” (I hope) created by having sentence after sentence so far removed from whatever any reader might’ve guessed the next sentence might be. The “tilts” and “stilts” of the 1st sentence returns again in the “t” sound of “clutched” and “to turn” in the 2nd sentence. I read the “formalism” idea as how meaning might change based on its neighboring word; for example, the “dyed” when matched with voice might take on an unexpected and unfamiliar meaning for the reader.

CS: You teach in the MFA program at Rosemont College outside Philadelphia, and your run a literary website and small press. Writer, teacher, editor, publisher—that pretty much covers it all. Can you take a moment and examine these roles and address their rewards (and challenges)?

RB: The overall reward is connecting to writing from various point-of-views both to assist other writers and to keep on learning. The challenge is not being stopped in one’s tracks by the tremendous talent I’ve found in the Rosemont College students and the thousands of submissions coming in to The Journal of Compresseed Creative Arts.

CS: What’s next?

RB: Finish three more novellas, revise the completed novel, go to The Dead and Company at Wrigley Field with my son in June, keep on keeping on. 


Curtis Smith interviews Michael Cocchiarale!

author photo summer 17Michael Cocchiarale is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Widener University. He is the author of two short story collections—Still Time (Fomite, 2012) and Here Is Ware (Fomite, 2018). He occasionally blogs about writing and other matters at:

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Here is Ware. I’m always interested in a book’s journey, especially in the indie-press world. Can you tell us how you and Ware ended up with Fomite?

Michael Cocchiarale: Thanks! When I finished Still Time (my first collection), I started looking around for small presses, having little idea of how to proceed. I happened upon Fomite, a fairly new press at the time, and queried Marc Estrin, the publisher. He read the manuscript, liked it, and—to my great joy—published it. When it came time to submit Ware, Fomite was at the top of my list. Happily, Marc liked this one as well. Fomite is a small operation, but Marc and Donna Bister (the press’s production manager) have amazing energy and have brought a great number of excellent books into the world. I’m forever grateful to them for their support and thrilled to be in such fabulous company.

CS: In your day-to-day life, you’re a writing professor at Widener University. How does this impact your creative work? Do you have days where you’ve spent so much time considering print that you can’t return to the manuscript waiting on your desk? Do you find yourself motivated by what you see your students achieving?

MC: It’s difficult to get writing done during the semester, but during breaks, I find it pretty easy to slip back into a routine. I do wish I had a little more balance in my life, but I wouldn’t want that if it meant shortchanging students in any way. Throughout the school year, I really enjoy focusing on teaching, advising, and mentoring. I love getting to know students and helping them develop as writers and editors. In the classroom, I’m continually impressed by their talent, work ethic, risk-taking, humor, and generosity with each other. Outside of the classroom, it’s inspiring to see them shine as editors of our literary journals or as presenters on the national stage at the Forum for Undergraduate Student Editors Conference and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Still buzzing from the positive energy generated in a given semester, I find I’m ready to jump back in to my own work when break begins.

CS: I enjoyed the sense of place in these pieces. We share some common roots—I lived for a bit in Erie, PA, and I recognized that eastern Great Lakes landscape. How important is place in your work? And in particular, what is unique about this area in terms of what it brings to your writing?

MC: Sometimes, students will set their stories in New York or LA—places they’re used to seeing on TV—and I’ll say, “Why not Philly?” “Why not where you’re at or from?” When I read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio in high school, I saw place names I recognized—Cleveland, Sandusky, Cedar Point—and that gave me a real charge. Years later, I read Mark Winegardner’s fabulous novel Crooked River Burning, and that reinforced for me the fact that Cleveland was a place one could use to explore important themes and obsessions. For several years now, I’ve been writing quite consciously about my hometown. The city has much to be proud about—the world-renowned clinic, the (free!) museum of art, the orchestra, the Christmas Story house (ha, ha)—yet Clevelanders suffer from a real inferiority complex. Violent crime, racial tensions, political corruption, and population loss haven’t helped matters. Add to these things other less troubling but still important factors, like the weather. Long and heartless winters give way to humid summers, which are spent sweating over winter’s impending return. Then there are the professional sports teams, whose collective track record of futility (with the exception of the Cavaliers a few years back) serves as a seasonal blow to the city’s self-esteem. Of course, no discussion of Cleveland’s psyche would be complete without mentioning forty-some years’ worth of jokes about the river that caught fire. With some of the stories in Ware, I wanted to both represent and push back against some of these things. In “A Night at The Orr House,” an old high school acquaintance takes the protagonist home to her shrine for Cleveland native Benjamin Orr, bass player and singer of the rock band The Cars. In “A Series of Your So Nices,” a young couple drives around the city’s West Side after dinner one night, trying to delay their return to the protagonist’s parents, where they’re staying for a few uncomfortable days. I do something similar in “Red Right 88,” in which the character listens to local sports talk and drives past old haunts while his toddler snoozes in the backseat. In these and other stories, I took great joy in the simple naming of people, streets, neighborhoods, and establishments. Making Northeast Ohio come alive a bit on the page.

CS: There’s a lot of coming home here—reconciliation with one’s past, making peace or perhaps just coming to terms. What about this theme calls to you? Do you think it’s the kind of current we ever truly escape?

MC: For much of my adult life, I’ve lived away from Cleveland. Because the Pennsylvania turnpike is interminable (and expensive), “home” is a place I return to only a few times a year. It’s great to go back, but at the same time, I also feel that however long I stay it’s always not enough. I think everyone who moves away feels this to some extent. Over the years, you miss important events. You’re not present to help when emergencies arise. You’re sometimes not able to return in time to say goodbye. The likely reason many of my characters in this collection are driving to or from home is because that’s been the overarching pattern of my life for the last twenty-five years: fall semester, home for the holidays, spring semester, home for a week in summer, repeat. I have no great desire to escape that current. As much as anything else, it’s who I am. However, I could do with a couple hundred fewer miles between here and there. And I could definitely do without those turnpike tolls.

CS: The book is anchored by the title novella. I’m a big fan of the novella, but I fear it’s often misunderstood or underappreciated. What about the form attracts you? Did you start out with a novella in mind—or did it kind of grow on its own?

MC: “Here Is Ware” started out as a single flash fiction. However, it wasn’t long before I wanted to find out more about Samantha Wayne and her dysfunctional family. I wanted to see her grow up—to see how, through both luck and savvy, she was able to avoid the pitfalls that claimed other family members. Then I became keen on exploring the tensions that arose when she moved away from her hometown. Not just the price she paid for rising out of bad circumstances and trying to forge a life of her own but also the struggle to appreciate or at least understand family members who had been for her such a source of conflict and pain.

CS: I also appreciated the novella’s structure. How did this come to you? What do you think it brings to the piece?

MC: As I mentioned above, the structure emerged bit by bit, as I added pieces of Samantha’s life. I think the structure also reflects her fragmented upbringing too, as well as her fragmented sense of self as someone with a new life elsewhere and an old life at home that is not simply going to go away. Novellas-in-flash have been enjoying a well-deserved moment in the last few years, and I think “Here Is Ware” sort of fits in with that genre.

CS: What’s next?

MC: I’m doing final proofing for my novel None of the Above, which Unsolicited Press will be publishing in early 2019. Set in Ohio (where else?), it’s a coming of age story that begins in 1980 and ends in 2007. Catholic school, toxic masculinity, xenophobia, academia, America’s foreign policy misstomps—I try to cover a lot of ground. It might not be surprising to learn that there’s also a bit of leaving and returning home involved.

I’ve also been working on a couple of longish stories that incorporate elements of the fantastical. One of those—a novella—is done, and I’ve begun shopping it around. It’s a very different kind of thing for me—a dark comedy about the end of the world. Not the real dark comedy we’re all howling through right now, but I did my best to give our absurd reality a run for its money.

WARE Cover

Check Out FP Dorchak

I’ve published several reviews of books by FP Dorchak over the years, and they all strike an exquisite balance between exploring paranormal realms and probing the emotional depths of the human spirit. All of his books are worth checking out, but this week, I’m calling particular attention to his 2014 novel, Psychic, which is now available as an e-book. Psychic follows a hotline psychic who receives a visit from a mysterious man claiming to be an FBI agent in search of a child predator. From here, her life is indelibly changed as she enters the world of psychic espionage. Check it out!


Believe It or Not…

Marc Schuster, etc.

A number of years ago — four? five? — I submitted a review of The Year of No Mistakes by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz to the venerable Believer magazine. Much to my delight, they accepted the review and planned to run it in a forthcoming issue. Then, much to my dismay, the magazine folded, and my review never saw the light of day. In the intervening years, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz went on to write a bestselling work of nonfiction titled Dr. Mutter’s Marvels while my review languished on a hard drive somewhere. But then I learned that the Believer was coming back, and now, years after I wrote the review, it’s finally up on the magazine’s web page: A Review of Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s The Year of No Mistakes by Marc Schuster

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Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 2.05.21 PMAs he waits for the gunshot that will kill him to sound in the final paragraph of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, protagonist Eric Packer catches a glimpse of his own death in the crystal screen of his smartwatch. It’s a haunting way to end a novel, but also a frustrating one. How, after all, did Eric’s watch both predict and display his untimely demise?

Fortunately for anyone still wondering about that passage fifteen years later, Aetherchrist, the latest novel from Kirk Jones, starts at least nominally and more than likely coincidentally where Cosmopolis left off. This time around, though, the protagonist who catches a glimpse of his own death on a tiny screen is not a billionaire asset manager but a down-on-his luck knife salesman named Rey.

Unlike Eric Packer, however, Rey sees his impending doom on an old analog television set rather than a digital screen. More to the point, he has time to change his fate. Yet every move Rey makes further entangles him in a bizarre plot to rewire the collective consciousness of a nation and thus to usher into being what could either be a golden age of harmony or complete and utter chaos. Spoiler alert: This being a Kirk Jones novel, the smart money is on the latter.

In many ways, Aetherchrist serves as a meditation on the personal isolation inherent in the digital age. Lamenting the cold nature of online relationships in the early goings of the novel, Rey notes that he has to pretend that all he wants is sex when what he really wants is for someone to validate his existence. Curiously, the bulwark against this sense of isolation is the unfolding plot to plunge the world into chaos.

Indeed, as the forces he’s battling gain the upper hand, Rey experiences a curious sense of communion: “It’s actually happening. I can feel it, a faint transmission like the one you get when you watch a late-night movie that you know hardly anyone is up for. You don’t watch the movie for the content. You watch it because you can feel a small population out there like you, riding the airwaves for a sense of connection.” Arguably, the hopeless search for this sense of connection is what Aetherchrist is all about.

Hot on the heels of last year’s bizarre dance with death, Die Empty, Aetherchrist positions Jones as an author who’s clearly and solidly hitting his storytelling stride. Though dark and twisted, his imaginary universes allow for sharp plot twists and solid character development even as the characters in question face certain doom. Indeed, perhaps it’s their proximity to death that makes Jones’s characters so compelling. In their struggle for survival, they cling to hope in the unlikeliest of places and situations.