Don’t Do the Hustle: an Interview with Author Belinda McKeon

by Julie Chibbaro

In a society where the dollar is everything, and our very existence depends on money, it’s often difficult for writers to find the time and resources to reach down deep to discover what we really want to say. This is a fact that I’ve been struggling with as an author, and it’s great to talk to other writers, to understand their ways of dealing with the grind of life while also making time for what they want to focus on —– their writing.

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Belinda McKeon, our February 2019 guest and the award-winning author of the novels Tender and Solace, doesn’t have all the answers, but she does have an amazing ability to juggle a tremendous amount of creativity. I asked her how she does it:

GLB: You are a playwright, journalist, novelist, professor. How do you manage to do it all?

BM: I don’t really do it all —- I just do one thing at a time. I tend to work on projects in blocks, including teaching work, which consists of a lot of syllabus and assignment-writing over break, and then class prep in blocks during the week. Around that, at the moment, I’m trying to spend two to three hours a day working on my current novel, and there’s no journalism or playwriting happening. They’ll return, I hope, when the teaching semester is done and I have some space for them. When I was in my twenties, the idea of firing on all cannons was much more attractive to me. Now I see the pressure to be massively productive as, basically, another part of the neo-liberal con, even for writers. I write what I can, when I can. That’s really all anyone can do. The rest is hustling, which is not the same as creating.

GLB: You’re from Ireland. How does that inform your work?

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BM: Fundamentally. The cadence, intonation, sentence structure, grammatical structure, of my writing is Irish. That’s before I even get to the question of character, storyline, themes, settings. I was born in Ireland, I lived there until I was 26, I return there several times a year, and in a sense I’m always halfway there, or half there, because a good deal of my reading, my social media feeds, even sometimes my radio listening, is from there. Also, my husband is Irish. But we’ve been in the US for almost 14 years, and life here, and the texture of life here, has become an organic part of my thinking and my writing over that time. The novel I’m working on at the moment is set here, between Newburgh and New York, and that is something I think it took me almost 14 years to be able to do without (I hope) forcing it. It took that long for the experience of being here to filter down into the writing in that way. Of course, one of my characters is still Irish, and is thinking about the immigrant experience all the time…there’s not much getting away from that. Still, it contains many aspects, so I don’t feel limited by it.

GLB: Lots of times, writers want to protect their characters. How do you get so honest in your work?

BM: I don’t have a choice. Honesty, often horrifying honesty, is just what comes out when I sit down to write. I don’t have any interest in writing characters who portray me in a flattering light. I’m just a messy, needy human.

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Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace won the 2011 Faber Prize and was voted Irish Book of the Year, as well as being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Her second novel, Tender, was published in the US by Lee Boudreaux Books in February 2016. (Read the Kirkus starred review here.)

Her essays and journalism have appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review, the Guardian, A Public Space and elsewhere. As a playwright, she has had work produced in Dublin and New York. She lives in Newburgh and is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Creative Writing at Rutgers University.

Misfires, Stalls, and Mistakes: Interview with Anthony Tognazzini

by Julie Chibbaro

My interview this week is with an author, Anthony Tognazzini, whom we can all thank for giving me the idea to start our Get Lit Beacon salon. Back in the 1990s, when I moved to Prague with the idea of becoming a writer, he was the leader of a literary salon called Beefstew, which met weekly at a local pub. I brought a story to read, and listened to his writing, and felt my whole idea of what it meant to be a writer shifting. He was one of the first people to give me positive feedback, and also to show me how to demand more of my work. Anthony is the author of many short stories, and the collection I Carry A Hammer In My Pocket For Occasions Such As These. You can listen to his story “Neighbors” read aloud at WNYC’s Selected Shorts here.

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GLB: Would you call yourself a perfectionist? Or how do you judge your own work (or know if what you’re writing is good?)

AT: My stories aren’t perfect, so no, but I try to make each one as good as it can be. I’m a slow learner, and writing takes me a long time; much of the process is spent just trying to figure out the most basic stuff, like what the story’s really about and how it’s going to unfold. There are a lot of misfires, stalls, and mistakes, a lot of bumbling around. The process feels inefficient and often pointless, but it also helps me discover where the real story is, and pushes the draft, successively, through revision, toward some more fully realized form. Getting rhythm and sound right is really important to me too. But none of that is unusual. All serious writers have high standards in these regards.

As for judging the work, it helps to read it out loud, and to get feedback from readers you trust.

Doubt plays an important part in keeping my standards high. Believing my draft is a piece of shit doubles as a way to figure out how to make it more solid, more honest, and more imaginative. I sometimes worry that I revise so much to compensate for a lack of other gifts. I asked the poet Dean Young if genius was maybe a matter of timing, that what the genius can do in 10 minutes might take a hard-working non-genius 10 years to do. (Dean’s answer, “Maybe taking 10 years is the genius part.”)

But I also know that if I doubt too much or for too long then the work probably isn’t that good, and I need to either quit or totally re-think the story.

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GLB: Do you keep a diary? Or how do you keep track of your thoughts as a writer?

AT: I don’t keep a diary or daily record of my life and thoughts, but I take a lot of notes in notebooks. I also use the Notes function of my iPhone. Some of those iPhone entries are devoted to a story idea, and I’ll just add more to it now and then, sometimes over months or years. Eventually I type those notes into a Word document, adding more, and in this way build bones for a story, collage-style and by accretion. This has advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes the gaps created by the collage approach create too many narrative absences that are then hard to reconcile. I’d like to move more toward generative, narrative-driven momentum in my writing process.

GLB: How has your writing changed over the years?

AT: I used to write shorter stories, and I think I’ve lost some of the spontaneity and freedom those forms allowed. I’m writing longer stories now, and trying to do more within the stories, so in terms of composition and story construction it’s gotten more complicated. Everything in the process takes about a thousand years.

Certain literary qualities that I believed in when I was younger still hold. I still want the stories to be fun, energetic, subversive, and emotionally impactful.

One key change is that the stories I’m writing for my current book are more concerned with moral questions. Especially around issues of social equality, justice, and individual freedom, the stories have become more moral. That might sound icky and prescriptive, but the morality is philosophical, speculative, a way to explore problems and imagine solutions. In a broad sense, the writing tries more to help. It wants to be of service.

Anthony Tognazzini is the author of the fiction collection I Carry A Hammer in My Pocket for Occasions Such As These (BOA). He has received fellowships from Yaddo, Millay, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. He teaches Creative Writing at the College of Wooster in Ohio. 

Author Interview: Jessie Chaffee and Brendan Kiely

by Ruta Rimas

The Get Lit Salon on January 13 — the first one of 2019 — will feature not one, but two guest authors, Jessie Chaffee and Brendan Kiely. They are both highly acclaimed, award-winning novelists with a special distinction: They’re married.

Two authors, one roof.

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Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy

Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy, was published by The Unnamed Press in 2017, and translated into five languages. She was awarded a Fulbright Grant in Creative Writing to Italy to complete the novel, during which time she was the Writer-in-Residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has been published in Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Florentine, and Global City Review, among others.

Brendan Kiely is The New York Times bestselling author of All American Boys (with Jason Reynolds), Tradition, The Last True Love Story, and The Gospel of Winter. His work has been published in more than ten languages, received a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, the Walter Dean Myers Award, and the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award.

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Brendan Kiely’s most recent novel, Tradition

His work has been selected twice as one of the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults and was a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best. Originally from the Boston area, he now lives with Jessie in New York City.

This couple’s literary credit rolls deep and we’re excited to speak to them in person. In advance of the salon, I asked these two writers the same question.

Why write?

Jessie Chaffee:

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Author photo by Heather Waraksa

I write because it is my way of making meaning and of understanding the world and my place within it. Whenever there is an issue that I’m grappling with, whether personal or global, the solution is always writing, because it is in putting words on the page that my understanding takes form and shape. Sometimes that process provides answers, but more often it just clarifies the right questions—and then those questions keep me writing! I write because I’m a reader and, like reading, writing is a path to empathy and connectedness. It takes me further into myself but it also takes me far outside of myself. It gives me access to an entirely new existence and to characters who are vastly different from me, who surprise me, who stretch me and challenge my sense of what it means to be a person in the world. Florence in Ecstasy took almost a decade, and while the writing process was at times maddening and there were plenty of dead-ends, I got to spend those ten years with a city that I love but that is not my own, with art and rowing and history, with Italian women and men and American expats and ecstatic saints. I’m grateful for every one of those years. I write because I’ve always felt most at home in books, in those moments when I glimpse truths that I might understand deeply—being lost, being at war with oneself, being in love—but that I haven’t seen captured in the (exact right way) that my favorite writers have managed to articulate them. And I write because I hope that my books might provide similar moments of connectedness for other readers.

Brendan Kiely:

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Author photo by Gary Joseph Cohen

I take inspiration from Toni Cade Bambara’s line, “the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible.” I write as an act of social engagement. Whether it is the scandal of abuse in the Catholic Church (The Gospel of Winter), racism and police brutality (All American Boys), or the violent repercussions of misogyny (Tradition, May 2018), I write novels examining the motivations of people grappling with the complex social issues of our day to try to inspire action for social change. I write to move the heart and the feet: I write in search of hope.

Join us on Sunday, January 13th at 5 pm, at Oak Vino, to continue the discussion with Jessie and Brendan.

Why Respectful Writing Matters: Interview with Lyn Miller-Lachmann

By Julie Chibbaro

We are all familiar with the way hashtags can create movements, and #ownvoices is one of those movements. #Ownvoices defines for readers books about marginalized characters that are actually written by marginalized authors, as opposed to, say, a white author co-opting a person of color’s experience.

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The multi-talented author Lyn Miller-Lachmann has written from both sides of this argument. I was curious what she thought about writing across races and experiences, as well as her view on the #ownvoices movement. Her answers provide some insight into what’s respectful within the boundaries, and why problems with writing outside of one’s own “voice” can occur.

GLB: I love that you write from the autism spectrum (Rogue) and cross culturally (Gringolandia, Surviving Santiago). You’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but you’re not from the Latin culture from which you’ve written. How do you feel about this political and social climate of #ownvoices, or writing from your “place” in the world only? Do you feel it’s limiting?

LML: This is a complicated question. I think the two most important reasons for #ownvoices are the preponderance of bad representations by outsiders that have become part of the canon—and this is a major problem for books with autistic characters because the early books were bestsellers and award winners and so problematic (see Elizabeth Bartmess’s review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nght-Time in Disability in KidLit, for instance)—and the way in which non-#ownvoices books by bestselling authors have hoovered up scarce publishing slots, leaving marginalized authors unable to sell their work.

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When I started writing Gringolandia, and then Surviving Santiago as the sequel, the circumstances were somewhat different. I lived within a refugee community in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1980s and then spent time in Chile, where I observed the transition from dictatorship to democracy. My Chilean friends at the time asked me to write the book, because, as they said, “We want you to tell the people in your country what happened to us” as a result of the CIA bringing Pinochet to power. In fact, several of them were angry with me because I failed to find a publisher for the book for many years; they thought I would self-publish it because that’s much more common and respected in Chile than in the U.S. Given that Isabel Allende, Antonio Skármeta, and others were publishing fiction set in Chile during the dictatorship, I didn’t feel I was taking a slot away from anyone else but rather bringing their story—and the U.S.’s role in it—to a wider audience.

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While it’s important to do the research necessary to write outside one’s lane, it’s even more important to be aware of one’s motivation. Why do you want to tell someone else’s story? Will your writing this book deny an opportunity to someone else from a marginalized group? What are you willing to do to make sure an aspiring marginalized writer has a chance? At this point, I would rather serve as the translator for an #ownvoices writer from Latin America, which is something I’m in fact doing now for a Cuban author who’s trying to publish in English in the U.S., where he now lives. We haven’t had much luck yet with U.S. publishers, but he adapted the novel into a screenplay, which I also translated, and it has garnered a lot of interest.

GLB: You’re a translator as well as a novelist. How did you get so involved in Latin cultures and language?

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LML: I was a language ace in high school and did a study abroad mini-semester in Spain during my junior year, an experience I wrote about for YARN several years ago. Teaching in a high school with a predominantly Puerto Rican student body, alongside a Puerto Rican colleague rekindled my interest in Spanish as well as Latin American history, music, and culture. So when I arrived in Madison in 1983, I sought out Latin American New Song concerts and attended other cultural and political events. Then, when my family moved to the Albany, New York area, I became the assistant host of a weekly radio show of Latin American and Iberian music, poetry, and history on WRPI, “Los Vientos del Pueblo.” As part of my duties, I translated songs and poems and read the translations over the air. And when my husband won a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship and we moved to Lisbon, Portugal for half a year in 2012, I learned Portuguese and continued my studies (and my translation of songs from Brazil and Portugal) upon my return.

GLB: You’re also a teacher and editor, among other things. Do you find it difficult to wear so many hats? How do you manage?

LML: I think that to survive as a creative person today, one has to wear a lot of hats, because when one opportunity fizzles out, there have to be others waiting. Several years ago, I taught a number of one-off and semester-long workshops at the middle and high school level, but the organizers moved away and the programs ended. This year, more than half of my income has come from translation, but last year I had only one small translation project. For the past couple of years, I’ve made good money doing sensitivity readings from autism, and while I appreciate the income, I hope that sometime soon, my #ownvoices novels will find a publishing home.

In all this, my one constant is writing fiction. I’m always working on new projects and trying new things to develop my craft and explore moments in history with resonance today.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of Rogue (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013), the story of a eighth grader with undiagnosed Asperger’s and an X-Men obsession, in search of a friend and her own special power. Lyn has also written the historical YA novel Gringolandia (Curbstone, 2009) and its companion, Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015) and translated the picture book The World in a Second (Enchanted Lion, 2015) by Isabel Minhós Martins and Bernardo Carvalho from Portuguese to English.

 

A Little Beacon: Interview with Katie Hellmuth Martin

by Julie Chibbaro

Last month, in October, we were lucky to have two journalists join us for Get Lit Beacon. One of them, blogger, public relations expert, and owner of A Little Beacon Blog, Katie Hellmuth Martin, shares her thoughts about finding a good story:

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Katie Hellmuth Martin

GLB: How do you know when you have a story that really works, that you want to pursue?

Katie: When I hear a statement that has bigger implications, my ears perk up. For instance, during a regular yearly budget negotiation for the trash pickup contract, the attorney representing Royal Carting – the trash collector for Beacon – mentioned that Beacon is no longer getting paid for recycling, but rather is paying to have it picked up. I knew from earlier reporting two years ago that this was a big shift. It was a pretty simple statement said in an off-the-cuff way, but I decided to look into it.

If there is a mystery about who did what, or where something came from, then I know I have interest in a story. It could be anything, such as “what is the Spirit of Beacon Day?” even though by now, I myself know what it is. But as long as I remember that others don’t, then that fresh, wondering spirit will stay alive on A Little Beacon Blog.

GLB: Can you talk a little about how you put together a news story?

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Katie: I have a lot of Text Edit documents open. Either I’ll type thoughts into there, and any URLs I’ve found along the way, or I’ll put them straight into a draft at the blog. If I interview someone, they get their own Text Edit document saved into my Notes folder in my blog, called “A Little Beacon Blog” or ALBB on my computer. I only hand write notes if I’m visiting someone in person who might be put off by a laptop or if I don’t have a laptop.

As I marinate, sometimes I stall because I don’t know if it’s timely enough. Sometimes an idea will hit me for the Subject Line in the email that will go out with the article. When and if that happens, the story gets out much faster because I get that much more excited to share it with my readers.

GLB: How do you stay fresh and not get burned out on the glut of information? How do you see a story as important?

Katie: Sometimes, very often, I miss the boat with timeliness. And that makes me sad. I’ll often try hard to fit in an older story. I see a story as important if I feel that a lot of people didn’t know about it, or if they saw misinformation on social media, and if I can get the facts and the links to back something up. Then the story has stronger legs and will seem important to people’s lives.

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Katie Hellmuth Martin is a writer, blogger, designer, business owner, wife and mama. She has been working in the tech space since 2005 as a website producer, digital content strategist, blogger, and small business owner. She is the co-founder of Tin Shingle, the web-based community and resource making buzz-building affordable and accessible to all small business owners. Katie runs A Little Beacon Blog (www.alittlebeaconblog.com), a blog spotlighting her hometown of Beacon, NY and the local businesses that help it thrive.