All posts in “Interviews”

Publisher Series, Vol. 7: SOHO Press

Cobalt: Tell us a little about Soho Press. How did you get started? What do you publish, in a nutshell?

Bronwen Hruska: The idea for Soho Press was conceived in a bar in Soho in the mid 80s (which I think pretty much set the tone for Soho’s personality, come to think of it). My mother and father, Laura and Alan Hruska and their good friends Dial Press editor Juris Jurjevics and novelist Laurie Colwin, were bemoaning the state of publishing. Big houses weren’t willing to take a chance on debut novelists and there were so many great novels out there that simply weren’t seeing the light of day (sound familiar?). By the end of that evening the decision had been made. My mother and Juris would head an independent publishing company that would accept unsolicited manuscripts (as well as agented ones), and publish books they loved. The idea was that if they loved the books, someone else out there would, too.

While Soho started as a publisher of literary fiction, by 1991 they had added a new imprint, Soho Crime, which specialized in exotic crime fiction. All the books in the Soho Crime imprint (with very few exceptions) are set outside the US and feature a protagonist that is, at least partially, of that culture. This was long before the concept of “international crime fiction” existed, and fans of the genre became lifelong fans of Soho Crime, going into bookstores looking for the branded Soho Crime spine and buying up whatever they could find. While I have the floor, a big thank you to the devoted Soho Crime lovers out there! They’ve made it possible to expand the imprint dramatically over the years, and to great success: the Nina Borg series, set in Denmark, being our most famous to date (The Boy in the Suitcase hit #6 on the New York Times combined bestseller list recently, and has remained on the list for three weeks running).

The success of Soho Crime has become an identifying feature of Soho Press’ program, but the literary fiction that the press was founded on is still doing amazing things. Our 2012 LA Times Book Prize-winner, Luminarium, by Alex Shakar, is a great example of the surprising and ambitious fiction we’re publishing at Soho.

Our third and newest imprint, Soho Teen, launched in January of this year. The line offers mystery and thrillers for the high school set (and beyond). There isn’t another YA publisher dedicated to the genre, which is so popular among teens. That said, our Teen books fall into many categories—fantasy, dystopia, supernatural, historical, contemporary—each story has a mystery or thriller element at its heart. Soho has never attempted Young Adult before, and doing so posed a variety of new and exciting challenges. Nabbing YA veteran Daniel Ehrenhaft to acquire and edit was a big coup.

I guess one thing that sets us apart is our dedication to our authors. Not only do we love our authors, we are authors—three of the eleven full-time employees at the company are published novelists and yet more have had short fiction published. It always floors me when I hear about the way some publishers treat their authors. Bottom line, we couldn’t do what we do without our authors. So starting with a fair contract is key, and making sure our authors are happy and involved throughout the publishing process is paramount. I’m proud that Soho is such an author-friendly house. I guess the litmus test is whether I’d want to be published by us, and the answer is a resounding yes.

Cobalt: How do you obtain the manuscripts that you publish, and how many of your authors are previously unpublished (no prior books, that is)? How many manuscripts are taken out of the slush pile, or is there a slush pile

Hruska: The big houses are more wary than ever of signing authors with a lack of sales history (ie debut novelists), but they’re also wary of the midlist author with low sales history. Since we’re not offering six figure advances, what we tend to see are books big houses have passed on for any number of reasons. And there are so many talented authors with wonderful books that are being passed on. We edit. And we market. We need to work very hard and find creative ways of breaking out a new author, or breaking out of a bad sales track. It just goes with the territory.  If we love a book (and being the size we are we won’t publish a book we don’t love), the challenge is fun and gratifying.

In terms of how manuscripts come to us, there’s no easy answer. Yes, we get many submissions from agents. The most successful submissions are from agents who have a real understanding of what we do and where our tastes lie.

For example, if agents are paying attention, they’ve noticed that over the past few years Soho has put a huge emphasis on our literary fiction imprint. We’ve tried to shine a light on the new, bold, voice-driven direction our literary fiction imprint has taken. So if an agent sends us commercial chick lit, I know they haven’t done their homework. Likewise for agents who send us mysteries set in Wisconsin. It doesn’t matter how literary the mystery is, it’s just not what we do (unless you can make a great argument for a fascinating pocket of exotic crime activity in Wisconsin). We do have a slush pile (recently we’ve narrowed it to literary fiction slush only) that produced one of our big successes of 2012: That’s Not A Feeling, by Dan Josefson (NYT Editors’ Choice, Booklist Editors’ Choice, Barnes and Noble Discover New Voices selection). So we definitely pay attention to our slush.

And then there’s the moment when the stars align and it just happens. Case in point: We just bought an amazing novel by Dylan Landis, which came to us because I met Judith Freeman, who was moderating a panel I was on at the LA Times Festival of Books. She asked if she could refer writers our way, and a few days later Dylan’s agent got in touch. Kismet.

For the record: One thing I’m not so crazy about is when people I don’t know send me manuscripts via Facebook. Yeah, don’t do it.

Cobalt: Let’s suppose that you’ve just read a manuscript, love it, and are making that phone call (or sending that email/letter) to the author. How does that conversation typically go?

Hruska: It depends. Sometimes we’ll love a book but know that it needs a big edit. Or we love a book but have a few very specific changes we’d want the author to make. I like the editor to get on the phone with the author to talk it through, to see if the author is amenable. Because if not, no one will be happy with the process. Sometimes an author is deciding between a few houses and wants to hear the editor’s thoughts, notes, comments and level of enthusiasm. I’d say in about half the cases there’s a “pre-offer” conversation with the author.

But once we’ve made the decision to offer on a book, the book’s editor has the happy task of saying yes to the author or agent. The nature of the beast, unfortunately, is that there are so many no’s in our business that we have to revel in the yesses. That first phone call is the beginning of a long, close working relationship between author and editor.

Cobalt: You began with Soho in 2008, and quickly moved into the role of publisher in 2010. What were you doing initially, and what made you want to take over?

Hruska: The first twenty years of my career were dedicated to writing. I worked as a journalist and screenwriter and sold movies and television pilots to studios and networks (and in true Hollywood form, nothing was produced). I had started a novel (Accelerated, which was published last year by Pegasus Books) when I started Soho in 2008. To come clean, I never intended to get into publishing. But when my mother got sick in 2008 with a recurrence of breast cancer, I had a decision to make. Juris had already left the company to become a full-time novelist, and my mother asked if I wanted to come to Soho with an eye toward taking it over. I won’t lie. I had to think about it.

But I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime offer, and I would have been an idiot to say no. I said yes. Then I spent a very humbling couple of years trying to figure out what this publishing business was all about. Oh, and I had to figure out how to run a company, which I had never done. I felt like I was 21 in my first job out of college. Clueless… and working with my mother. But the more I understood about the business, and about the company, the more I loved it. And when the moment came for me to step into the role of publisher, I was, if not ready, more ready. My mother trained me well, and I still hear her voice in my head (“Always pay the printer first!”).

And I love Soho. As soon as I figured out some things and was able to take some ownership, I was hooked. At first I thought that my lack of inside publishing knowledge would hurt me—that I’d never fully catch up. But I don’t worry about that anymore. I mean, it’s true, I have holes in my knowledge of publishing. I don’t know all the players. I didn’t dance on bars with them at The Union Square Café in the ‘80s. But I also have the benefit of an outsider’s perspective and don’t feel married to Old School ways that just don’t seem to make sense anymore.

Also, coming into publishing in 2008, right when ebooks were surfacing, put me neck and neck with everyone else trying to figure out how to shift and bend and yield to something totally new. And in fact, I find that I’m less scared than some other publishers when it comes to digital books. It really is a huge period of opportunity.  People are buying more books (and hopefully reading more books!), and that’s a good thing for everyone. Are there potential pitfalls and question marks all over the place? Of course. But it’s one step at a time, and the beauty of being a lean independent press is that we can be exceptionally agile. We can, and do, try new approaches, just to see what works. And then we change them, because what worked three months ago might not work next week. Things are moving fast. It’s a constant challenge to figure out what’s next and how to capitalize on the many opportunities out there. But really, that’s what keeps it fun.

The past five years have been incredible, and I’m truly lucky to be able to work with such a creative, intelligent and energetic group of people. Coming to work every day is a pleasure, and that’s not something many people can (honestly) say.

Cobalt: Are there any challenges specific to the types of work that Soho publishes?

Hruska: Literary fiction is hard. Debut literary fiction is harder. Mid-list literary fiction is harder still. So yeah, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Finding the books for our list is only the beginning. Convincing readers to take a chance on a hardcover book by an author they haven’t read is the biggest challenge. Building awareness of Soho’s literary titles has been a labor of love, and I think our Herculean efforts are paying off. I see our books out there in the world more than ever (a nod of thanks here to Random House, our distributor of the past two-and-a-half years). We’re getting great review attention and award nominations. It seems like we’re constantly on the road at trade shows to get galleys into the hands of librarians and booksellers, speaking on panels and talking up the books to whoever will listen. Over the past few years Soho’s marketing and publicity department has grown from two people to five, which has made a huge difference in terms of our ability to raise awareness for our books.

Cobalt: This year seems to be going quite well for Soho. Matt Bell’s IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS (I am always happy when I can nail that without double-checking!) and Christopher Hacker’s THE MORELS have both gotten a lot of recognition this year, and I can’t go anywhere without seeing at least one of those books. Both phenomenal. I have read Bell’s twice, and just finished Hacker’s. Do you see even bigger things in Soho’s future? What might that look like?

Hruska: I’m so glad you’re seeing the books in stores. That’s the first step! The two you mention have been very well received. In addition to overwhelming critical praise, Matt Bell’s novel (we refer to it as In the House at Soho, or even ITH!) was also an indie bookstore gem, with an IndieNext pick as well as an Indiespensible selection going out to 1700 Powell’s subscribers, which was very exciting. And The Morels has been shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel prize. So yes, we’re feeling the love this season, that’s for sure. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy and money on making sure booksellers and librarians know about our books early. It feels like we’re at a conference every weekend handing out galleys and talking up the books. It’s that kind of one on one conversation that can make all the difference. These are the people who are handselling books. We’re also sharply focused on what Amazon’s digital merchandising can do for a book, and do our best to make sure the good folks over there are aware of what we’re up to. Of course you have to start with a great book, and I thank our wonderful authors for providing those.

In terms of the future, establishing Soho Teen and building awareness for that is taking up our forward thinking for the moment, and as the Teen line expands our list to 91 books this year, making sure nothing falls by the wayside is paramount. The staff has more than doubled in the past two years as has the company’s sales. So we’re growing, fine-tuning, making sure that we’re doing the most we can for each book we publish.

Cobalt: On Sunday, at a non-profit book exchange here in Baltimore (The Book Thing), I came across a Soho book by Don Wallace, that led me to realize just how long you’ve been around. Can you point back to some Soho books from the not-so-recent past that especially deserve revisiting?

Hruska: Soho’s first list launched in 1987, so there’s a lot to choose from. Way too many to cover all the great ones, but we launched the careers of many authors you’ll recognize. Check out Breath Eyes Memory by Edwidge Danticat; How Even Broke His Head (and Other Secrets) by Garth Stein, the author of The Art of Racing in the Rain; The Gunseller by Hugh Laurie (aka Dr. House); The Darkest Child, by Delores Phillips; The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville; Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais and all the books in her Parisian mystery series starring Aimée Leduc; Peter Lovesey’s wonderful British procedural series starring Peter Diamond. And from the not-so-recent past, two musts are: Too Bright to Hear, Too Loud to See, by Juliann Garey and Little Wolves by Thomas Maltman.

About Bronwen: Bronwen Hruska joined Soho Press in 2008 and became publisher in 2010. Before coming to Soho, she worked as a journalist and screenwriter. Her articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Entertainment Weekly, and her TV and movie scripts have sold to Columbia Pictures, NBC and CBS, among others. Her first novel, Accelerated, was published last year by Pegasus Books.

Interview: Michael Landweber

Cobalt: Michael, hi. Thanks for doing this with us. It’s great to have an excerpt from your new book We in our first issue of the third year! To begin with, can you set us up for what we’re about to read?

Michael Landweber: Thanks for having me.  And congrats to Cobalt on your third year!

I’ve been saying my book is literary fiction with a splash of genre. It is the story of a 40-something who wakes up inside the brain of his 7-year-old self. He’s not in control – he’s just a hitchhiker who can observe the world through his younger self. The man, Ben, just wants to get away from Binky, which was his nickname as a child. That is, until he realizes that it is three days before his sister is going to be attacked, a crime that destroyed his family.  Ben realizes that he has to convince Binky to do something about it.  The problem is that Binky doesn’t like his older self very much. Ben doesn’t always have the best judgment, and one of the ways he has been trying to win Binky over is by helping him answer some of Binky’s classmates questions about sex. This has made Binky a bit of a elementary school celebrity. But it also leads to the trip to the Principal’s office in the excerpt.

Cobalt: You’ve established yourself pretty well in the local literary scene, publishing work in various Maryland and DC journals. What do you think are some of the strengths to living in such a rich literary scene?

Landweber: It is awesome to be living in an area with so many great outlets for writing. Cobalt is a wonderful addition to the literary landscape.   As you mentioned, I’ve been lucky enough to land pieces in local journals and websites like Gargoyle, Big Lucks, Potomac Review, jmww and Barrelhouse.  But this only happened for me and others because there are so many great writers and editors promoting the work of their peers. It is tough out there for a writer to be heard. Having such a collaborative atmosphere in the DC/Baltimore area helps amplify all the rich voices found here.

Cobalt: Madison, Wisconsin, eh? What brought you here to Maryland?

Landweber: Well, the short answer is that I’ve been following the same girl around for twenty years and she brought me to DC.  But the long answer starts a bit before that. Madison is a terrific place to grow up, but like most kids I was ready to try something new after high school. I went to Princeton for college and then ended up moving to Japan for a year.  Turns out that girl, who is now my wife, lived in the apartment next to mine in Tokyo.  She hasn’t been able to shake me since.  When she decided to leave Japan and travel in Asia, I tagged along.  When she decided to go to law school in Ann Arbor, I found myself two grad programs that would cover three years at Michigan.  And when she decided we should live in DC, I got myself a job at the State Department.  Stalking her really has made my decisionmaking process much less complicated.

Cobalt: How does being a bureaucrat inform your writing/hinder it?

Landweber: Well, everything I do informs my writing in some way.  I think that’s the case for all writers.  There are aspects of how things move through a bureaucracy that appeal to my sense of the absurd.  At the same time, for all the flak that the federal government gets, the policies and programs that come out of the complicated system have real affects on people and I would argue that they are often beneficial. Anyway, that’s my defense of bureaucrats.  But, that said, I don’t really write about anything that I work on.  As for hindering my writing, that is more a function of having a full time job than being a bureaucrat.  There are only so many hours in the day.

Cobalt: I always enjoy a good psychological read, and you even get into sci-fi (which has been on a serious upswing as far as pop-culture seems to be concerned). Can you speak more to these elements within the book?

Landweber: Including genre elements in literary fiction does seem to be on an upswing. There are some amazing writers that have always used them, such as Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami.  But now it seems that many writers are more willing to blur the lines, including some of my favorites like Kazuo Ishiguro, Karen Russell, Michael Chabon and Kevin Brockmeier.

In We, I wanted to send my main character back in time, but I didn’t want to do something that I’d seen before.  I didn’t want a straight up time travel story.  And I didn’t want to have him just take over the body of his younger self.  I was more interested in the psychology of how would someone interact with an earlier version of themselves.  So, that’s how I ended up with two manifestations of the same person occupying one brain.  It made for a lot of fun dialogue to write.  I also enjoyed going down the path of envisioning what a physical representation of the superego and id might look like.  Particularly the id, which turned out to be a nasty piece of work.

Cobalt: And where can our readers obtain a copy? Do you have any local events coming up?

Landweber: I’m encouraging people to order a copy through their local independent bookstore.  It may not be on the shelf, but any store can get a copy for you.  It is also available on any of the big retailers’ websites or through my publisher, Coffeetown Press.

I’ll be in Baltimore reading at the 510 series on November 16.  Also, let me put in a good word for the new Waterbear reading series which is held at One More Page books in Arlington, VA.  I had a great time reading there in August.

About Michael: Michael Landweber is the author of the novel, We (Coffeetown Press, 2013). His stories have appeared in Fugue, Fourteen Hills, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, American Literary Review, Big Lucks and a bunch of other places. He is an Associate Editor at Potomac Review, and writes reviews for Pop Matters and the Washington Independent Review of Books. Find more about Mike at

Nine Questions with Frank Deford

Andrew Keating, Cobalt Review: A friend and I were debating the merits of football versus baseball, in a way not unlike your June 19th NPR column: all about the short-term excitements, pacing, etc. My friend stated that he prefers football because he is frequently “witnessing things he has never seen before” (such as Riley Cooper hiding in the Eagles’ end zone). This got me thinking about the constant changes in a sport like football. I managed to become a Dolphins fan as a kid, and we had the Wildcat offense in 2008, which changed the role of RBs. Then it was Tebowmania (not too different from the double-threat of a young Michael Vick). Now it’s the read option offense. The game is constantly changing. Baseball, on the other hand, changes very little, or—I should say—incrementally and over a long period of time.

What do you think are some of the key reasons for baseball surviving as our “national pastime?” Is it nostalgia, the fact that the game that is being played today is so similar to the game that was played by my father’s generation and my grandfather’s generation?

Deford: American football is more the exception than the rule when it comes to great change.  Has soccer changed much?  No.  Given baseball’s structure, it would be hard to make transformational changes.  It’s a different game than football (and all back-and-forth games) and thus has different appeal.  Whereas football is clearly the more popular game in America, baseball retains a huge audience.  It could not sustain its popularity simply by being nostalgic.  People like baseball for what it is.

Keating: The asterisk is perhaps the most harmful symbol in all of sports. I’d like to think we have moved beyond its use for Roger Maris, but the stink of its placement on Barry Bonds’ record-setting home run ball seems to be here to stay. And now reports are surfacing every season incriminating the baseball elite in performance-enhancing substance use.

Deford: The steroid era in baseball (and some other sports) taught fans to be more suspicious.  Yes, they’re also more cynical, but I think most fans appreciate that baseball is more vigilant about drugs today.  The fact that the drug cheats are not being accepted into the Hall of Fame, and that the public seems to concur, suggests that a majority of fans think the cheaters should be punished, if only symbolically.  Otherwise, it’s time to move on.  Football has a much greater problem with concussions, because that is an on-going issue at the very center of the game.  Drugs will always be a threat in every sport, but the officials are on alert now.  That changes things.

Keating: How did you, or your colleagues in sportswriting, adapt to the shifting sentiment of baseball fans in light of these scandals? Did you find the relationship with your readers change at all?

Deford: Maybe the writers who covered baseball on a day-to-day basis found readers responding to their work differently.  I think most fans just wanted to hear the truth.

Keating: We have a brief essay in this issue about a woman hanging out with Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and she recalls spending a lot of time at Memorial Stadium when she was younger. Since you were born here in Baltimore, I thought I’d ask if you have any particular memories from Memorial Stadium, or with Jim Palmer (the namesake of our contest, after all).

Deford: The Orioles of that era had a reputation amongst the press as about the nicest team in sports—certainly in baseball.  In my dealings with Brooks, Boog and Jim, as different as they are as people, I certainly concurred with that assessment.  Wonderful people, all three—and I had a special connection with Jim, because I was a trustee of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and Jim was our national spokesman for many years.

Not much to say about Memorial Stadium except that I spent many happy hours there.  What’s to say?  It was my hometown stadium.  How do you compare it to any other in another city?

Keating: Will we ever see Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame?

Deford:  Not in my lifetime.  Or his.

Keating: How has the role of the MLBPA changed since it’s introduction in 1952? Do you find the Players Association as effective in baseball as it is in leagues with salary caps? 

Deford:  The baseball union seems pretty effective to me.  I don’t hear any players complaining

Keating: Now that I’ve brought up salary caps, I’m curious about your thoughts on the Luxury Tax. The tax has only been paid by four teams a total of 17 times, and yet only four times has a team that crossed the luxury tax threshold reached the World Series (Yankees ’03/’08, Red Sox ’04/’07). Maybe this speaks to a more competitive league than we had at the time of the Blue Ribbon Panel report?

Deford: That stuff bores me.  I leave that to the insiders.  Just generally, I like to see the small market teams get theirs.

Keating: Last month, you celebrated the 125th Anniversary of the writing of “Casey at the Bat” by reading it on your weekly segment for NPR’s Morning Edition. It is a tale we have all heard and felt great sadness for (an understanding, as we have all felt that disappointment as fans). What is it about this poem that has stood the test of time, much like this great game of ours? What other literary works would you hold up to Thayer’s mighty Casey?

Deford: Some works of no obvious brilliance just catch hold of the public eye or ear.  It takes luck and circumstance and even then it’s a bit of a mystery.  Obviously, part of Casey’s charm is that the big slugger fails, but it’s impossible to explain its enduring popularity.  Likewise: Who’s On First.  It’s funny, but why has it remained the number-one vaudeville comic routine.

Keating: Since this issue is coming out during the All Star Break, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the role of home-field advantage as an incentive to the midsummer classic. Do you think that this game, which is not managed much like a typical regular season game (with starting lineups being determined by vote counts, for instance, or pitchers only throwing for one or two innings), is the proper way to determine home field advantage for the World Series?

(Personally, with inter-league play a season-long necessity, I think that total
win-loss records for inter-league play could be a viable option for determining home field advantage.)

Deford:  I think it’s fun to determine home court this way.  Sometimes baseball people take things too seriously.   Better than the just alternating, the way it used to be.  (Your idea seems fine, too, but my understanding is that they need to decide fairly early how the schedule is going to go because of saving hotel rooms, etc.  Waiting till the end of the season to see who wins the most inter-league games may not be logistically possible.)

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About Frank: Writer and commentator Frank Deford is the author of sixteen books. His latest novel, Bliss, Remembered, is a love story set at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and in World War II. Publishers Weekly calls it a “thought-provoking…and poignant story, utterly charming and enjoyable.” Booklist says Bliss, Remembered is “beautifully written…elegantly constructed…writing that is genuinely inspiring.”

On radio, Deford may be heard as a commentator every Wednesday on NPR’s Morning Edition and, on television, he is the senior correspondent on the HBO show RealSports With Bryant Gumbel. In magazines, he is Senior Contributing Writer at Sports Illustrated.

Moreover, two of Deford’s books — the novel Everybody’s All-American and Alex: The Life Of A Child, his memoir about his daughter who died of cystic fibrosis — have been made into movies. Two of his original screenplays, Trading Hearts and Four Minutes, have also been filmed.

As a journalist, Deford has been elected to the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters. Six times Deford was voted by his peers as U.S. Sportswriter of The Year. The American Journalism Review has likewise cited him as the nation’s finest sportswriter, and twice he was voted Magazine Writer of The Year by the Washington Journalism Review.

Deford has also been presented with the National Magazine Award for profiles, a Christopher Award, and journalism Honor Awards from the University of Missouri and Northeastern University, and he has received many honorary degrees. The Sporting News has described Deford as “the most influential sports voice among members of the print media,” and the magazine GQ has called him, simply, “the world’s greatest sportswriter.”

In broadcast, Deford has won both an Emmy and a George Foster Peabody Award.

For sixteen years, Deford served as national chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and he remains chairman emeritus. Deford is a graduate of Princeton University, where he has taught in American Studies. (Source: NPR)

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Interview: Donora Hillard

Cobalt: First off, quit bugging me to send you interview questions. I’ll get to it when I get to it.

Donora Hillard: Sneef sneef. (That’s my crying in French sound.)

Cobalt: Whatever. I’m over it. So explain to me what you do, since I really have no clue. Something about poetry, right?

Hillard: Let’s never know. It’s just a sequined distillation of anxiety.

Cobalt: What’s the deal with Theology of the Body? You re-pub’d that as Covenant? Are you some kind of religious whackadoo? What does Jeff Bridges have to do with God/god-like beings?

Hillard: Theology of the Body was published in 2010 and re-released last year as Covenant in collaboration with Zachary C. Bush’s first book. The thought was that the collections worked well together, and I went on a six-city summer book tour of the South with some ladies in a van to promote it.

I was raised and educated by the Catholic system and briefly taught inside it. The book is an embodied response to lines like “If we ever need to know how to properly love a woman, all we need to do is look at a crucifix,” which is an actual thing promoted in schools by Catholic apologist and “chastity speaker” Jason Evert and others. My own belief structure hinges upon the Gospel of Thomas and the phrase “Talitha cumi,” which is Aramaic for “Girl, get up.”

Jeff Bridges is, as I call him, the Muse of the Age. I’ve been writing poems about him for what seems like 15 years. I mostly do them by request now; they’re like my “Freebird.” He’s here to tell us that everything’s going to be all right.

Cobalt: Give me a quick little Jeff Bridges poem right now. You have five minutes. Go.


Jeff Bridges

You go on a water fast
because you hate yourself

and Jeff Bridges laughs.
“Baby Sister,” he says. “Why?

Remember me in Fearless.
My hair was so long

and I wasn’t afraid
of any strawberry.

I stuck my head out
the window like a beagle.

I yelled at God
‘You want to kill me but you can’t.’

So let it go. Let’s drive our
Volvo into a brick wall to make

Rosie Perez feel better.
Let’s buy presents for the dead.”

Cobalt: You mentioned to me earlier that you were hungry. What have you eaten since noon?

Hillard: The milk in my tea.

Cobalt: Look at shorty, she a little cutie, yo. The way she shake it make me wanna get up in the booty, yo. Right?

Hillard: Right. I respect anyone whose moisturization agenda is as compelling as mine. That is not a euphemism.

Cobalt: Tell me more about this van of women touring the South. It sounds like something that many churches would frown upon.

Hillard: One notable thing about the tour was that a boy I didn’t know drove three hours to see me read and gave me a music box that played “Hey Jude.” I never thanked him properly.

Cobalt: When did you begin training for Olympic Hugging, and how did you discover the sport?

Hillard: I have been training since the womb, no discovery.

Cobalt: How do you carve out time for writing? Any specific schedule? Or a place that you like to write?

Hillard: I take forever to do anything, as you now know. You also know I agreed to marry a cowboy who moved back here from New Mexico then suddenly decided he wasn’t done being a cowboy. This is all to say I’m often hobbled by perfectionism and find writing painful, especially when my stupid little heart is hurting.

I also do about 18 different things on a daily basis. I’m finishing a doctorate and teach at a university and work full-time as a disability advocate and mentor, so the rest of it is basic time management. I prefer to write longhand, and I revise obsessively. Apologies to all those whom I’ve ever made wait for me.

About Donora: Donora Hillard is the author of the poetry collections Theology of the Body (Gold Wake Press, 2010) and Covenant (with Zachary C. Bush, Gold Wake Press, 2012) as well as several poetry/hybrid text chapbooks. Her work appears in Best of the Web (Dzanc Books), Hint Fiction (W.W. Norton), Monkeybicycle, Pedagogy, and elsewhere. Her projects have been featured by Chicago Public Radio, CNN, Lybba, MSNBC, and the Poetry Foundation.

Follow Donora on Twitter.
Get your hands on Covenant.

Publisher Series, vol. 6: Copper Canyon Press

Cobalt: Tell us a little about Copper Canyon. How did you get started? What do you publish, in a nutshell?

Copper Canyon: Copper Canyon was founded 40 years ago and is based in Port Townsend, Washington. We published poetry and translations, with an occasional work of prose. More specifically, we have committed to publishing contemporary poetry from new and established poets alike, in addition to translations, anthologies and reissues of out-of-print classics. You can find more about the history on our website. It breaks down who our founders were, who we publish specifically and a bit about our fundraising program.

Cobalt: How do you obtain the manuscripts that you publish, and how many of your authors are previously unpublished (no prior books, that is)? How many manuscripts are taken out of the slush pile?

Copper Canyon: This a great question, and one we get often. Michael Wiegers, our executive editor, frequently says “there is no one way to become a Copper Canyon poet.” He looks for writing that is exceptional: equal parts evocative and intellectual. Sometimes our poets are discovered through recommendations, occasionally we solicit specific poets, and though it is rare that a manuscript be pulled from the slush pile for publication, every submission that comes to our mailbox is read. I’m not sure the exact number of our authors who are previously unpublished, but between last year and 2014 we are publishing four “first book” collections.

Cobalt: Let’s suppose that you’ve just read a manuscript, love it, and are making that phone call (or sending that email) to the author. How does that conversation typically go?

Copper Canyon: Oh, this is a fun question! We’ve had some truly fantastic reactions when our authors are notified they are going to be published by Copper Canyon. Typically, Michael Wiegers calls or emails the author and what follows is a string of many exclamations points and warm welcomes from our staff and the CCP family.

Cobalt: What unique challenges and opportunities does the present market for poetry create for a publisher?

Copper Canyon: There are certainly many unique challenges with marketing poetry, but I see them all as opportunities. Since there are fewer venues that consistently review poetry collections, I practice a lot of side-dooring, which is a technique used by marketers and publicists to discover nontraditional venues who might be interested in the author and their work. For example, one of our new first-book authors, Kerry James Evans, has a collection titled BANGALORE coming out that touches on his time in the military. I’ll spend some time investigating media outlets that might be interested in his experience as a soldier in addition to his beauty poetry. I think its important to know the book inside-out—emotionally, intellectually and from a more formal sales perspective in order to market poetry well.

Cobalt: You’ve been at this for 40 years! Kudos. What are some of your favorite Copper Canyon books, and what are some of the exciting books coming out in the near future?

Copper Canyon: Thank you! Ah—the dreaded “what is your favorite” question! I’m tentative to answer with any one author or collection. We have a long history of elegant, timeless books and translations…it is very hard to pick just one. Our new season of books keeps in line with this history: along with Bob Hicok’s Elegy Owed, Lisa Olstein’s Little Stranger, Kwame Dawes’ Duppy Conqueror, Ed Skoog’s Rough Day, Fady Joudah’s Alight and Jane Miller’s Thunderbird which are all being released this season, we have two “first-book” collections coming out in the Fall / Winter 2013 season: as previously mentioned Kerry James Evans (Bangalore) and Roger Reeves (King Me).

Hmmm…there are also three terrific bilingual editions coming out: Rilke’s New Poems by Joe Cadora, Pinholes in the Night: Essential Poems from Latin America (Raul Zurita and Forrest Gander) and fungus skull eye wing by Alfonso D’Aquino (translated by Forrest Gander). Plus, three volumes of poetry from established poets Sarah Lindsay (Debt to the Bone-eating Snotflower – yes that is a real thing!), Jennifer Michael Hecht (Who Said) and the late Dennis O’Driscoll (Dear Life). Whew. Lots to be excited about over here!

Return to Issue 8.

Brian Russell: First Issue Re-Cap Interview

Cobalt: We featured several of your poems in our first issue (September 2011), so let me start by saying thank you for helping us get off the ground two years ago.

What have you been up to over the past couple years?

Brian Russell: Thank you right back. Cobalt was the first magazine to take any poems from the book I had been working on that year. Best friends forever. The past couple years…well, I’ve gotten about 10 haircuts (approximate).

Cobalt: Oh, Brian, you’re being modest. Last year, your book, THE YEAR OF WHAT NOW (link) was selected for the Bakeless Poetry Prize. That’s a huge honor. Can you speak a little to your experience with the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and receiving this great award?

Russell: Thanks; it hasn’t ceased to be exciting to me since the day I got the call. I actually don’t have any experience with Bread Loaf, though I’m eager to go in August. I’ve never been to any writing conference/retreat, in fact. I’ve got a regular old office job which means I have a precious collection of vacation days that I have to use judiciously. I’ve been saving them up for close to a year now for Bread Loaf. They will be well-spent.

Cobalt: You also received your MFA from University of Houston. Is this how you landed the gig as safety for the Houston Texans? How do you balance life as a poet with the strenuous career of being a professional athlete?

Russell: It was purely coincidence. Prior to my time in Houston, when I was playing for the Seahawks and applying for MFA programs, I thought that I would have to choose between the obscure but meaningful world of professional football and the lucrative but potentially dangerous world of poetry. Thankfully I didn’t have to make that choice.

Seriously though, when I was in the program at Houston, we used to play pick-up football in the park on weekends, poetry vs. fiction. Poetry always won, obviously.

Cobalt: While you were at Houston, you served as the poetry editor for Gulf Coast. Did you find that your own writing was influenced by the work you did for the journal?

Russell: I do think it was influential, though mostly in indirect ways. By making choices (in individual poems, in establishing a larger vision for an issue or a magazine as a whole) editors are forced to define what they think is and what isn’t worthy of space. To some degree, I think that probably helped me articulate what I was trying to do in my own work. Editing (I’m currently the Managing Editor for Phantom Limb [shameless plug]) also provides an informative cross-section of the State of Poetry. At the very least, it allows me to see where I stand in relation.

Cobalt: Tell us a little bit more about your upcoming collection, THE YEAR OF WHAT NOW (Graywolf Press, July 2013).

Russell: THE YEAR OF WHAT NOW follows a loose chronology of a woman’s sudden illness, her extended stay in the hospital, and her eventual release. The poems are narrated from the perspective of her husband. The book presents the hospital as a kind of parallel universe with its own rhythms, language, and time. The longer they’re inside, the more they feel detached from the outside world. Confronted with his wife’s mortality, the husband begins to see more clearly what their life together has meant and what the world would be without her.

Cobalt: Do you have any secrets to your process? When and where do you write, and how do you get that first draft on paper?

Russell: When I set out to write THE YEAR OF WHAT NOW I was more or less abandoning the book I’d been working on for the previous five years. I had an overwhelming sense of urgency to get the new book written. I gave myself six months to write 90 poems and two months to edit and cut. In doing so, I forced myself to stop thinking (read “second-guessing”) so much and just write. It also gave me a kind of built-in permission to write bad poems, which felt very freeing. Since finishing the book, I’ve actually written very little. I haven’t felt enough separation yet to start again in earnest.

Cobalt: So what comes next?

Russell: In the long-term, crushing anxiety over the thought of writing another book. In the short-term, I have the incredible fortune of joining Stephen Burt and Sophie Cabot Black for the Graywolf Poetry Tour this summer. We’ll be reading at BookCourt in Brooklyn on July 8th, Prairie Lights in Iowa City on July 9th, and Common Good Books in St. Paul on July 10th.

Brian Russell Author PhotoAbout Brian: Brian Russell is the author of The Year of What Now (Graywolf, 2013), winner of the Bakeless Poetry Prize. He lives in Chicago with his wife and dogs.

Read an excerpt from The Year of What Now.
Get your hands on the book.
Return to Issue 8.

Jen Michalski: First Issue Re-Cap Interview

Cobalt: Let’s start by talking about your new book, THE TIDE KING, which won the 2012 Big Moose Prize and is being published by Black Lawrence Press (August 2013). We have an excerpt of the novel in this issue. Can you provide us with a little context for the excerpt?

Jen Michalski: Sure. In this excerpt, in 1949, Calvin Johnson heads to Helena, Montana, in search of a fellow solider, Stanley Polensky, with whom he served in WWII. Johnson can’t be sure, but after waking up in a mass grave of dead soldiers after getting shelled, he dimly remembers Stanley shoving something in his mouth before he lost consciousness. He doesn’t understand the correlation between Stanley did and how it came to be that he’s still alive and has this uncanny ability to heal. He gets roped into helping put out the Mann-Gulch fire. In the actual fire, 12 smoke jumpers were killed, and Norman Maclean wrote a beautiful and haunting book, Young Men and Fire, in which he tries to piece together what happened many years later. It’s one of my favorite books, and I knew I wanted to included it somehow. In fact, a lot of the book is like that–a lot of things that I was interested in (female country music singers of the 1940s, World War II, Partition-era Poland). Fortunately, I was able to make it all work–I think.

Cobalt: What are some of your earliest influences as a writer? Was there one point in your life that you realized “this is what I want to do”?

Michalski: My earliest influence was Louse Fitzgerald and her children’s novel Harriet the Spy, about an upper east-side girl named Harriet M. Welsch, who spies on her classmates and the people in her neighborhood. She doesn’t do it out of malice, only curiosity, but when the notebook with her reflections is found by her classmates, her observations are very real, very raw, and they are very hurt. They tease and exclude her. It was a book that really spoke to me about the realities of youth—the cruelty of children, the need to tell white lies in polite society, to smooth things over, and somehow remain true to oneself. Harriet is a very three-dimensional, flawed character.

When I was a teenager, like everyone else, I suppose, I was really into JD Salinger—Salinger is so indulgent with his characters, their dialogue, and it was like he gave me permission to be indulgent as well, to be peculiar to embrace my peculiarities and those of my characters.

Cobalt: The Baltimore literary scene seems to be continuously expanding and gaining mass appeal. In 2010, you edited a book for CityLit Press called CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?

Michalski: I had been co-hosting the 510 Readings with Michael Kimball for about a year, and I was astounded by how many fantastic writers were actively working in Baltimore (along with its rich literary history). Gregg Willhelm of CityLit Project really loved the idea, and we went ahead and sent out a call to writers and compiled, along Michael Kimball’s help, a lot of public domain pieces from Fitzgerald, Poe, Stein, etc.

Cobalt: Where do you fit into this thriving community of writers and editors, and what sort of opportunities/challenges may come up as a result of being part of it?

Michalski: Sometimes it’s hard to include everyone in everything. Actually, I think that’s a good problem to have—the community is so rich and diverse–we’re like a sports team with a very deep depth chart. Also, there are so many reading series and events going on that I have a hard time making it to everything. I try to attend one event every week, and sometimes I have to choose between two or three really interesting things even then.

Cobalt: You and Michael Kimball host monthly 5:10 Readings at Minas in Hampden. How did this reading series get started?

Michalski: Michael and I met on MySpace (I guess that’s really dating us)! This was maybe 2007. Gregg Wilhelm and I had hosted a string of monthly writers happy hours for almost a year (every month, we’d meet at a different bar), and Michael came to one of the happy hours. He was interested in starting a fiction reading series because he saw a need for one. I thought it was a great idea. Because of the happy hours, I’d gotten to know a lot of local authors, and Michael brought his group of local writers, along with writers from New York and other places, and suddenly we had a really deep list of writers to serve as our lineup the first year. I don’t know that we were expecting great things, but great things happened. The series has been really successful, standing room only almost every month at Minas Gallery, and I feel like a lot of people have come away from the series and thought, “Yeah, I can start a series, too” or “Hey, I see you every month–do you want to start a writing group?”

Cobalt: I feel like I know you pretty well as a writer (not that it will stop me from asking questions), but I don’t know you all that much outside of the literary world. How do you pass the time when you’re not writing/editing/hosting awesome reading events?

Michalski: It’s funny, because my girlfriend Phuong will tell you I’m pretty much writing 24/7, that I’m a writer/editor 24/7. I will admit to it being a sort of disease to me. I feel constipated, queasy, if I’m not writing and processing my thoughts and feelings in words. But I try to find a balance. Phuong and I jog a lot, and we like to travel. We have a Boston Terrier, Sophie, who is like my child. I just got a bike, and I’m going to try and not die in traffic this summer riding it.

Cobalt: Oh, please do be careful. Most of our “bike lanes” here end abruptly at heavy-traffic intersections, or are conveniently placed between driving lanes and parking spaces. Drivers tend to forget cyclists are people too. Now that I’ve said that: Where do you write? (I assume, based on your previous answer, that you are really just biking from one writing location to the next.)

Michalski: I write wherever I can, but mostly in bed or while sitting in front of the television. I don’t watch. I simply like to know things are still happening in the world while I’m in that other space. It’s almost similar to a fear I had when I was younger, of falling asleep. I didn’t like not knowing when I was going to become conscious again, if at all. Sometimes you can get so wrapped up in writing something it does feel like you’ve become unconscious and the world has gone on without you and you feel like Rip van Writer: “Wha? How long was I writing?”

attachmentAbout Jen: Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press; winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize), the short story collections From Here (Aqueous Books 2013) and Close Encounters (So New 2007), and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc 2013). She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of The 510 Readings, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a ‘Best of Baltimore’ in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, MD, and tweets @MichalskiJen.

Read an excerpt of The Tide King.
Return to Issue 8

Interview: Aubrey Hirsch

Cobalt: Your first collection, WHY WE NEVER TALK ABOUT SUGAR, deals with love in many different ways – from the way that we replace human love with affection for consumer goods in the title story, to issues of self-acceptance in “Pinocchio”, to a family torn apart by multiple sclerosis in “Strategy #13: Journal”. Is love always this complex?

Aubrey Hirsch: Probably not. Probably love is really easy sometimes. But those times don’t make very good stories. I tend to focus on the ways love can be troubled, tortured, confusing or unexpected, but also, hopefully, resilient.

Cobalt: I will admit, I nearly gave birth to a second copy of your book while reading. The prose is tight, hard-hitting, and, at the same time, very nurturing. I often felt like the narrators were coaxing me to keep going, like a mother who is telling her child a bedtime story so well and so good that the child refuses to fall asleep, clinging to that need to hear just a little bit more. On that note, I’d like to address the parent/child relationships of this story. I mentioned “Pinocchio” earlier, which is a story that deals with parental acceptance of gender issues. “Leaving Seoul” gets into pregnancy/abortion issues, and “Strategy #13″ shows a daughter struggling to find herself in a way that is separate from her ailing father. First, let me ask you about your own experience as a first-time mother. How’s that going?

Hirsch: Awesome!

Cobalt: Do you feel that your relationship with your son has changed the way you read your own work now? Has it changed the way you approach writing about parenthood? If so, how?

Hirsch: Writing fiction often means carefully imagining situations with which you might not be familiar first-hand, but having a kid is definitely great research for writing about parenthood. I’m sure these new experiences will leave their mark on my writing.

Cobalt: Travel and foreign places show up often in this book. What inspired you to use these locales in your writing?

Hirsch: Each story has its own complicated genesis tale, and the settings are part of that. But, by and large, the locations of the stories are usually inspired by my plummeting down some internet rabbit hole or another. “Leaving Seoul,” for example, was inspired by an article I read on South Korea’s illegal Hagwons (private after-hours schools for ambitious students). Other times the settings are integral to the plot. “Paradise Hardware” takes place on the coast because I needed a hurricane to chase the narrator’s Uncle Leo away from his hardware store. After the inspiration comes the research, and, almost always, little discoveries that shape the stories themselves.

Cobalt: You published a story in Cobalt, which we featured in the first print issue, “Rachel Garrett.” Talk to me about Star Trek and where this story came from.

Hirsch: I’m a big Star Trek fan, though I prefer The Next Generation to the original (sorry, purists!). I like to think of “Rachel Garrett” as a kind of literary fan fiction. Rachel appears in only one episode of the series as captain of the Enterprise-C, which has been caught in a time rift. She interested me immediately because she’s the only woman to ever captain any Enterprise ship. It’s amazing that Star Trek: TNG is set the 24th century and, apparently, women are still dealing with the same bullshit issues (at least the Federation’s elimination of money finally closed that pesky wage gap!). I began to think about Rachel as a pioneer in her own time and that was really the basis of the story. I learned more about her character and how she fit into the Star Trek universe and she’s really a fascinating woman. I think I could write a whole novel about her if I could afford the rights!

Cobalt: In the Twitter interview we did with my creative writing class, you mentioned that you typically build stories around characters. Can you speak more to this? How early in the drafting process do you determine whether the story will be character-driven or plot-driven?

Hirsch: That’s a tough question, since these things tend to evolve in my brain before I even really recognize that there’s a story brewing. I would say that most of the determination happens very early, long before I start writing. If the genesis of the story comes from a voice or a bit of dialogue, the driving force of the story will probably be the character. If the idea comes from a situation or something I read or saw on the news, then probably the plot will shape the story. But those are almost never conscious decisions for me.

Cobalt: What percentage of time would you estimate you spend on drafting and what percentage goes to revising?

Hirsch: I’m a very careful and obsessive drafter. I rewrite sentences in my head over and over again before I type them and often write three or more completely different versions of the same story before I find the one that works. I’m not sure if that counts as drafting or revising… But if I had to guess, I’d say I spend more time drafting. Usually by the time I have a draft I feel good about, all it needs is a bit of polish for me to feel like it’s ready for the world. That’s not true every time, of course, but more often than not it is.

Cobalt: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience working with Braddock Avenue Books, publisher of your debut collection? What was it like putting out your first book with such a new publisher?

Hirsch: Jeffrey Condran and Robert Peluso are the masterminds behind BAB and I can’t say enough good things about them. They are so hard-working, passionate and determined. They are brilliant editors who really care deeply for the books they put out. They were very new when I signed on with them, but they were putting out Last Call in the City of Bridges by Sal Pane, who’s a friend of mine, and I trusted him when he said they were great. I’m glad I did!

Cobalt: Do you have anything new in the works?

Hirsch: I do! I can’t say anything definite yet, but it looks like I’ve found a home for my collection of counterfactual biographies, of which “Rachel Garrett” is a part. I’m also working on a novel. And, of course, I’m always working on shorter-length projects: stories, flash fictions, and essays.

CIMG0469About Aubrey: Aubrey Hirsch is a proud native of Cleveland, OH. Her work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Third Coast, Hobart, The Rumpus and elsewhere. She currently teaches fiction writing in Pittsburgh, where she lives with her husband, writer Devan Goldstein, and their son. Her first collection of short fiction, Why We Never Talk About Sugar, is currently available from Braddock Avenue Books.

Publisher Series, Vol. 5: Mud Luscious Press

Cobalt: Tell us a little bit about Mud Luscious Press. How did you get started? What do you publish, in a nutshell? Do you publish books that can fit in a nutshell?

J. A. Tyler: Mud Luscious Press started as an online quarterly in 2007 and grew a little bit each year, adding in handmade chapbooks in 2008, our Novel(la) Series in 2010, our Blue Square Press imprint in 2011, and most recently, our Nephew imprint series. In a nutshell, we publish work that makes use of poetic language but that still tells a story, that still has a through-line narrative.

Cobalt: How do you obtain the manuscripts you publish, and how many of your authors are previously unpublished (no prior books, that is)?

Tyler: We obtain manuscripts through both an open reading period (our next will be summer of 2013) as well as through our own invitations to those whose work we find and love. We publish both experienced authors like Norman Lock, who has numerous books, and Robert Kloss, whose debut novel The Alligators of Abraham released in winter 2012.

Cobalt: Let’s suppose that you’ve just read a manuscript, love it, and are making that phone call (or sending that email) to the author. How does your end of that conversation typically go?

Tyler: Mostly, at that point, we are just hoping to hear that the author is excited about the prospect of publishing with us as we are at publishing their work. We also want to make sure they aren’t crazy, so that is a tiny part of the conversation.

Cobalt: Tell me about the Nephew Series, a collection of shorter, smaller books with a beautifully simplistic design. Also, what other imprints are under Mud Luscious, and how do they function differently from the main press?

Tyler: Thanks for that about our Nephew Series. It began as a means to publish works that are longer than a chapbook but shorter than a novel(la), but were works that we really believed the world couldn’t live without. We also house Blue Square Press, an imprint run by Ben Spivey and David Peak. BSP falls under our umbrella– we collaborate on ideas, trade tips and hints – but they run everything on their side from manuscript selection to printing and distribution.

Cobalt: Speaking of design, what is the design process for the books published by Mud Luscious, and where does the author fit into that process?

Tyler: The bottom-line is that we want each author to be super happy with the finished product of his or her book. If they have an artist they like, we seek them out. If they have an idea but no means to achieve it, we provide the designer. If they don’t have any clue what they’d like, we get several mock-ups and go from there.

Cobalt: Barnes & Noble recently said that the craze over e-books has started to shift back to print (loosely paraphrased). Have you embraced e-books (Kindle, Nook, etc.) at Mud Luscious? If so, how has that experience been?

Tyler: We have just struck up a partnership with Dzanc Books’s rEprint Series, which will produce the entire Mud Luscious Press catalog in ebook form. We don’t have the expertise or reach that Dzanc does in this e-realm, and we are elated that our readers will now have ebooks as an option if they like.

About J.A.: J. A. Tyler’s most recent book is Colony Collapse, out now from Lazy Fascist Press. His work has appeared in Redivider, New York Tyrant, Diagram, and others. More on his writing can be found at

Interview: Amber Sparks

Cobalt: The first time we met, I had the pleasure of hearing you read “Death and the People” – the opening story from your collection MAY WE SHED THESE HUMAN BODIES. This story sets a great tone for the rest of the book, which is packed modern fables both grim and wickedly entertaining. Do you have favorite fables from when you were a child (or more recently)?

Sparks: I do! I love fairy tales and fables, always have – and my absolute favorites have always (shockingly) been the saddest ones. So of course I especially dig Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans, The Snow Queen, the Little Mermaid, and The Steadfast Tin Soldier. I’ve always loved the real Sleeping Beauty, too. Even the ones I like that have happy endings are really about the dark underbelly of humanity.

Cobalt: Does death really look like a J. Crew model?

Sparks: Ha! Well, maybe not a J. Crew model (I think I made Death preppy because I wanted him to be kind of a stick-up-the-arse type) but surely Death is totally hot, right? He must be to lure away so many people from life.

Cobalt: Multiple stories in this collection deal with death in a sort of familiar way. Like death could be an old acquaintance, or maybe isn’t really a big deal. I think to “The Ghosts Eat More Air,” which reads: “There are no clocks in the land of the dead. There are no wristwatches, no calendars, no way to keep track of time…The dead are as dead as doornails…the land of the dead is no bigger than a small cottage.” What type of relationship will your reader develop with death and the dead after reading this book?

Sparks: I’d like to say that I hope the reader feels a little more entertained by death, if nothing else. But in reality I suppose I’ll probably impose my paranoia and fears of death on all my readers, too.

Cobalt: When the bell rings in each of your stories, the reader gets punched in the face with a hard right-hook. “Glen’s father dies in a Burger King.” or “Kay keeps lists of everything; it’s her illness.” or “The year the earth froze hard as diamonds and the sky rained ash, my great-grandparents met and married.” I wonder: do you begin at these points and let your stories develop from them, or do you flesh out the story and then return to the open and pack in the punch during the revision stage?

Sparks: It really depends. I’m a strong believer in the power of a good first sentence, so if I have a good story without a good opening, that’s one of the first things that gets tinkered with in revision. I hate pussyfooting openings. I definitely believe in starting out solid ground and then you can pussyfoot from there if you want. But yeah, a lot of times I will think of a line and the story comes from it – I think that’s probably partly due to the influence of fairy tales on me. It starts with the once upon a time, there was a witch or whatever, and now we know what world we’re in. We know how to orient ourselves. I think that’s really important in a story.

Cobalt: I recall you were into the whole acting thing – or may still be? – and I was tickled to see that you share an appreciation for Ionesco (one of my favorites). Do you think that your theatrical knowledge has informed your writing methods or style? Have you done any acting lately?

SPARKS: Yep, I used to be an actor, many moons ago. I do love Ionesco, as both a writer and as an actor. I do think theater has subtly shaped my writing, though I”ve been writing much longer than I was ever acting so I think if anything the influence went mostly the other way. You do learn a lot about dialogue, about pauses, about the white space around the text and how real people sound. Though I still kind of suck at dialogue, so I don’t what that tells you. I don’t act anymore though I”d love to again someday, when I have a job and the time it allows.

COBALT: What are a few of the books on your “To Read” list?

SPARKS: Oh my goodness. I have a To Read bookshelf – seriously, an entire bookshelf of stuff I need to read. But immediately in the pile: Karen Russell’s new book, Matthew Salesses’ brand new book I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, The Collected Poems of Hart Crane, Evan S. Connell’s Points for a Compass Rose, and a biography of Nile Explorer John Speke.

Cobalt: I was also fortunate enough to meet the great Robert Kloss (author of ALLIGATORS OF ABRAHAM) at the event where we met. And you’ve teamed up with him for a new project: THE DESERT PLACES (which features illustrations by Matt Kish, as well). Tell us about that.

Sparks: Cool that you asked about this, because Rob and I just got to see the interior of the book for the first time today, and oh, MAN is it a beautiful thing. You guys are going to be so damned excited when you see it. ALL you guys. It started out as just this thing for fun that Rob and I wrote together, and then it ended up being pretty fantastic, and then the amazing Matt Kish wanted to illustrate it, and then Curbside Splendor wanted to publish it, and now here we are! It comes out in October and it’s a hybrid text, gorgeous illustrations alongside a selection of flash fictions about the history of evil on earth. Past present and future. It’s pretty badass, I have to say.

Cobalt: Anything else on the horizon that we should know about? Feel free to share any plans for world domination here.

Sparks: There a novel on the horizon, as well as another short story collection…but that’s long term. In the short term, I plan to go home, eat some dinner ,drink some wine, and play with my cats. You know, like any good stereotypical writer.

Amber Full Steps b w copyAbout Amber: Amber Sparks is the author of MAY WE SHED THESE HUMAN BODIES, and co-author of the forthcoming THE DESERT PLACES, written with Robert Kloss and illustrated by Matt Kish. She lives in Washington, DC with two beasts and another human, and she lives online at or @ambernoelle on Twitter.