All posts in “Interviews”

Interview: Justin Sirois

Cobalt: First off, let me apologize for the delay in getting this interview started. However, it’s my understanding that the greatest thrill is in the waiting. How has the wait been for you?

Justin Sirois: Gripping, really. Haven’t slept since I first met you on the street a few months back. I’ve saved so much for this particular interview. I hope you don’t let all of us down. Take us away.

Cobalt: KidnApp (the fictional – right? – cell phone app that lets a user put in requests to be kidnapped which you created for your most recent work So Say the Waiters). WTF?

Sirois: Pretty messed up, right? It’s been hilarious creating a social network and subculture from scratch. So yeah, to explain the app, users (nicknamed Waiters) download kidnApp, create a profile, and then submit their own tailor made kidnAppings. Within 48 hours, a Taker comes to get them. A lot of the tension in the novel revolves around the waiting—the time between takes.

In the series, most of the users of kidnApp never submit a take; they use the app to follow and comment on Waiters and Takers. So most of the users are voyeurs who drive the more invested users (Waiters) to get more followers and comments.

How would you like to be taken?

Cobalt: My most recent submission to kidnApp, which hasn’t yet been fulfilled, is to be taken for six hours, strapped to one of those medieval stretching devices, and have So Say the Waiters, Volume 2 read to me a day before it’s released to the public. That said, would you consider yourself a waiter or a taker? Will we be seeing some form of kidnApp on our iPhones any time soon?

Sirois: I’d be happier as a Taker, for sure. It seems like a lot more fun to chose an alias and create a Taker identity. But sometimes getting away from my day-to-day would be nice as well. At least I wouldn’t be pressured to write any more of this endless story.

I’d love to see kidnApp as a real app or maybe just a cool promo for the series. I think the interest is there. A lot of readers ask me if the app is real or where they can download it—I guess that speaks to the reality of the story.

Cobalt: Tell us a little bit about the use of “episodes” in So Say the Waiters. The first volume is Episodes 1-5, and you’re currently working on Volume 2. Go on.

Sirois: I wrote the series much like a TV show. Each book is broken up into 4 or 5 episodes that are about 70-80 pages each. In my mind, they’re about 45 minutes long (screen time). Lots of action and dialogue. I’ve encouraged people to download them on their smart phones and tablets in eBooks or episodes. I love the idea of readers experiencing this series on an app like Kindle because it’s about apps and social media. Meta, right?

Reading the book in the traditional print or full eBook doesn’t detract from the experience at all.

Cobalt: You make an interesting point regarding traditional versus eBook reading. Many authors consider eBooks to be a necessary evil, though you seemingly embrace the market. Do you feel there is a particular difference in eBook publishing? If so, what advantages could an author find in it?

Sirois: eBooks are much easier to distribute, I’ve found. It’s helpful that I can email a PDF of the first episode to people for free. Once they’ve read that, readers typically download at least the next 2 episodes to see what happens. As long as people are reading and enjoying literature, I really don’t care what delivery system they’re using. I’ll still love physical books, though.

It’s also nice having little to no overhead with a self-published title. That’s an obvious financial benefit to ePublishing.

Cobalt: So Say the Waiters was self-published and has seen a good deal of success. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of self-publishing this book?

Sirois: Not really. That part is boring. I will say that it’s been a little tough getting strangers to read the first novel, but people are slowly coming around. Locals are really keen to it, as the series is very Baltimore, but the themes and characters are very universal. So yeah, not having the support of a great indie press is tough. Doing it alone is always harder. I don’t regret it at all, though—I’ve made more money off this project than all my others combined, and it’s only been a few months.

Cobalt: You’ve also published Falcons on the Floor and MLKNG SCKLS with Publishing Genius, who we recently enjoyed interviewing for the Publisher Series. How did working with PG differ from publishing the work on your own? How was it similar? Were there any particular experiences you had in publishing Falcons that helped you in self-publishing Waiters?

Sirois: Full disclosure, Adam Robinson edited So Say the Waiters. The two experiences were very similar. Adam’s a brilliant person and a lot of fun to work with. I’d be a little lost without his expertise.

Cobalt: You’ve had all kinds of things going, even before Waiters hit the shelves. A lot of your experiences in Baltimore as a bartender and party promoter made it into the series. Talk to me about Taxidermy Lodge? What pushed you to start this eclectic dance party; and how has TaxLo influenced your work since?

Sirois: It took me a while to figure out how to talk about my life in my early 20s, after college, bartending at rock clubs and hosting regular dance parties. It was how I made my money for years. And it was a crazy time in my life—friends died and went to jail. Taxidermy Lodge started as a small dance party on a Monday night and blew up to be a massive weekly (for a while twice weekly) party. I had the help of some brilliant DJs—primarily Cullen Stalin and Simon the Phoenix—who ended up carrying the torch for a long while after I retired.

So all the stuff that Dani (one of the main characters in Waiters) goes through is first-hand from my experiences. She works at the bar/club that I worked at, which is closed now. Her Baltimore is my Baltimore. It’s been really important to me to respect the city’s creative scenes in the series, especially the scenes that go unnoticed in literature.

Cobalt: Other than Waiters, do you have any other current projects going?

Sirois: Haneen Alshujairy helped me edit a follow-up to Falcons on the Floor, but it’s a bit rough. I had a marine friend of mine read it and I’ll have to go back to the manuscript to edit a bunch. I’m not sure when that will happen.

Newlights Press is also publishing a full-length book of poems of mine called The Heads of My Family, My Friends, My Colleagues. Aaron Cohick of Newlights makes amazing letter-pressed and handmade books/art objects so I couldn’t be happier to see how it turns out.

justinsiroisBW2About Justin: Justin Sirois is a writer living in Baltimore, Maryland. His books include So Say the Waiters, Secondary Sound, MLKNG SCKLS, and Falcons on the Floor written with Iraqi refugee Haneen Alshujairy. Justin has received four individual Maryland State Art Council grants and a Baker “b” grant in 2011. His work has appeared in The Collagist, Dark Sky Magazine, Nano Fiction, and Consequence Magazine among others.

Interview: Valzhyna Mort

COBALT: The first time I saw you speak was at the University of Baltimore’s orientation for new MFA students. You kept your address brief, but what stuck out to me clearly was this statement: Stop reading shit. (Which was intimidating and also fantastic advice.) What do you define as shit and does that definition change? Do you have any guilty pleasures that might fall into that category?

Valzhyna Mort: My definition of “shit” does not sheer from the one in New Oxford American Dictionary. As for guilty pleasures, I feel guilty only when I don’t read.

Cobalt: I’m curious about your ideas on the role of the poet. Do you think a poet has obligations to gender, politics, country, or particular issues?

Mort: Poet’s only obligation is to poetry. Any national issues – be it gender, race or any other stumbling stone that has produced much saliva – deal with here and now, with the temporary. Poetry, even if it describes going to the grocery store, lives in the infinite. Even a simple poetry reading at a bookstore is a kind of a circus – what is there to say about a poet at a political rally? Most so called political poems have to resort to the language of politics – the unambiguous, utilitarian language of present day clichés, and that’s when, like true revolutionaries, they shoot themselves in the head. I’ll never write celebratory poems for a president, unless this president is imaginary. Imaginary tyrants are a great poetic material.

Cobalt: Belarusian is a language that is being reinvigorated and you’ve described it even as a form of rebellion, saying that the artistic community in Minsk is constructing a Belarusian identity. I would say as one of the most well known Belarusian writers (one of the few in English translations), one who spoke Russian in your home and not Belarusian, you are a part of the tradition. Could you speak about this idea of a Belarusian identity and perhaps its interplay with a post-Soviet identity and a poet identity?

Mort: I think it’s better to have an STD than an identity. When a poet’s biography begins with “so and so was born in a family of a Nicaraguan father and a Mozambique mother” I immediately lose all interest in the work. I don’t think that poet’s work is a representation of some culture, even if it’s a culture of one household. A poet writes from imagination, not from her parents’ ethnic background. But, of course, for a poet childhood and imagination are often rightfully synonymous. Nevertheless, my childhood is mine, before it can be Soviet, Belarusian, or Russian.

Cobalt: Your most recent book, Collected Body, was written in English. But, you helped translate Factory of Tears from Belarusian to English and have done quite a bit of translating in multiple languages. You’ve spoken at length about how much you believe in translation and you seem to celebrate the way it changes the poem, but what do you think of how translating changes the writer?

Mort: The only way to learn how to write, besides selling one’s soul to the devil, is to read good books, and we often talk about the importance of reading like a writer. Nevertheless, we read most carefully and deeply when we read like a translator. In fact, a good translator often knows the text better than the text’s author. Translation of good writing is the best exercise in writing.

I’m not sure what you mean when you say that I seem to celebrate the way translation changes the poem. I believe that everything can be translated, maximally close to the original. More so, when it comes to truly masterful, genius work, it shines even through a mediocre translation, and it’s better to at least catch a glimpse of a great mind, than not to, no?

Cobalt:  I suppose what I meant was based on something you said in an interview with Ian Engelberger that “poems lose in translation but at the same time they gain a lot, things that might not have been in the original but come out in a foreign language, because this is how the language of poetry is different than everyday language”.The way you speak about translation in that interview seems to really embrace the inevitable differences.

Mort: Thank you for this link, Tabitha. It brought back great memories of my reading at the Gunnery school. As for my statement on translation, I see now that it is easy for me to make it since I’m discussing my own poems which I have actively helped translate. When a poet herself is responsible for both the originals and their translation, the degree of liberty skyrockets, and translation becomes a part of the original creative progress, in which poem and its translation function as two sisters rather than a child and her step-sister. Translation then gets to influence the original, becoming a sort of an exercise in editing. Translating Factory of Tears gave me a chance to return to my old poems and rediscover them – discoveries mainly had to do with the heights that the poems never reached because they were abandoned too early. So I ended up working on the English translations while editing the Belarusian originals.

Maybe I’m making it up… Somehow this is how it makes sense to remember it right now.

Cobalt: You use rural places and characters in several poems that have appeared in your books but seem to live–at least, now–in urban areas. What draws you back to those particular types of settings and people?

Mort: This is a true observation. I return to rural landscape because nature is the only place where it is possible for a human being to deal with emotional pain. It is only nature that can teach us (a child) what it means for a human being to have a will, to create dreams and memories. Nature is time and rhythm, and so is a poem.

About Valzhyna: Valzhyna Mort was born in Minsk, Belarus and moved to the United States in 2005. She is the author of Factory of Tears (Copper Canyon Press, 2008) and Collected Body (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). A recipient of the Lannan Foundation Fellowship and the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry, Mort is currently a visiting professor at Cornell University.

Interview: Michael Kimball

Cobalt: Two of your books, BIG RAY and DEAR EVERYBODY, face death through snapshots. In BIG RAY, those snapshots are through quick bursts of memories and descriptions of mementoes; and in DEAR EVERYBODY through unsent letters. What is your process of creating these scrapbooks of someone’s life, post-mortem? Also, as the author, do you paint the picture and then dissect it piece-by-piece, or do you start with the pieces and later find the portrait they create?

Michael Kimball: With both books, I started with pieces—and a voice—and the story of the line emerged from that. With DEAR EVERYBODY, the letters were written in a kind of rush, one letter leading to another letter as wrote on a legal pad as quickly as I could. The letters were written out of order, but eventually organized into a chronology. With BIG RAY, I started with the death of my father, which was a kind of shock and which came back to me in glimpses, little bits of memory that led other memories, both of his life and his death. The novel came out in a rush like that and many of the chapters are organized in the way that we remember.

Cobalt: Another similarity between these novels is that an individual is re-discovering their deceased relative in a different light. Do you find that death and family drive your writing? If so, how?

Kimball: I never set out to write about death and family, but the themes keep coming back. Even when I’ve tried to start a novel in a different place, as I did with DEAR EVERYBODY, I find my way back to family and death. I feel as if BIG RAY is a kind of culmination for that, though, and that my next novel will have to be about something very different.

Cobalt: You are at the center of the Baltimore writing community, not only living, writing and publishing here, but also hosting the 510 Readings. In your experience, what are some of the advantages to being part of such a strong community of writers?

Kimball: In a basic way, it’s just a nice thing to be part of such an active and generous community. It’s nice to be around people who care about and do the same things that you care about and do. And so I do what I can to add to that sense of community. I think of the 510 as my community service—and a way to introduce as many writers as I can to each other.

Cobalt: You’re a novelist. What do you do when you’re not noveling, and how do you balance noveling with non-noveling activities?

Kimball: I just Googled “noveling.” I had to see if it was a thing and the Internet machine says it is a thing. So I edit and rewrite college textbooks—that takes care of some of the bills that literary fiction doesn’t. I ride my mountain bike most days and like that it can be done pretty much year-round in Baltimore. I like to paint. I like to read in bed with my two cats, Moose and El Duque. I play on a co-ed softball team—sometimes called Sir Lord Baltimore, sometimes called Sweatpants—that is made up of other writers, artists, and musicians. And as certain friends will tell you, I will bet on nearly anything.

Cobalt: You say that for DEAR EVERYBODY you were writing in a rush, writing letter after letter on a legal pad. How do you think this pace informed the voice of the book? Did you ever have to step back and slow down? 

Kimball: There’s something about writing the first draft with a pen on paper that I really like. The speed I can write by hand kind of matches the speed of my writing brain—and I find the voice there on that legal pad. But, yes, eventually, after I had written a couple hundred of the letters, I had to step back and see what I had. At that point, I organized the letters into a chronological order and started writing some of the other elements in the novel—the weather reports, the yearbook quotes, the last will and testament, etc.

Cobalt: Where do you do your best writing, or the most writing? This could be an actual geographic location, or a state of mind, or whatever you want it to be, really. In fact, I’ll even rephrase: What conditions best suit your writing needs?

Kimball: I’m going to answer a slightly different question. I most like writing at home, in bed, either late at night or early in the morning. I think of it as a kind of in-between time. It feels like everything changes if I actually get out of bed. Besides that, I also like to write on airplanes and trains, even buses though less so. There is something about writing while traveling that lets me get a different range of things down on the page. One of my favorite parts about living NYC was writing on the subway every day, going to and from work.

About Michael: Michael Kimball is the author of four novels, including Dear Everybody, Us, and, most recently, Big Ray. His work has been translated into a dozen languages, and been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as in The Guardian, Bomb, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard).

Publisher Series Vol. 3 – Short Flight/Long Drive Books

Cobalt: Tell us a little bit about Short Flight/Long Drive (SF/LD). How did you get started? What do you publish?

Elizabeth Ellen: We started SF/LD in 2006. Aaron was spending a lot of time editing Hobart and I helped with that but wanted my own project to work on so we decided to do a book division and put me in charge of it. We don’t really have any rules for what we publish. Pretty much whatever strikes my fancy. Probably at one time we said we’d never do a poetry collection, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we did. So far we’ve mostly put out story collections, though we’ve also done nonfiction (The Sicily Papers) and a novel (The Avian Gospels) and a novella (I Have Blinded Myself Writing This).

Cobalt: How do you obtain the manuscripts that you publish?

Ellen: Various ways. We have acquired two from slush, two by asking the author if they were interested in publishing a story collection, one via a friend of a friend championing the author’s manuscript, and one via a contest. Oh, and I put out my own collection. So that was pretty easy to acquire.

Cobalt: How many SF/LD books have come from previously unpublished authors?

Ellen: All but one: Karl Taro Greenfeld’s NowTrends. Karl is the author of several books. Everyone else: it was their first book.

Cobalt: Let’s assume 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?

Ellen: Well, it seems like with each book the process is slightly different. With someone like Mary Miller, for instance, I emailed her to ask if she’d thought of putting out a collection (she hadn’t). She wasn’t even sure, at first, if she had enough stories (she did!), but she was interested in seeing what we could come up with. She sent me many stories and I read through them and we agreed on what we wanted to include. Then we worked together on editing the stories and deciding how the stories she be ordered. This probably all took place over a few months, through many, many emails. After that we consulted David Kramer, a wonderful artist in New York who we first contacted about my Future Tense chapbook. David worked with us on Mary’s cover. I had been in love with the old Dell paperbacks I’d found in a used bookstore and wanted to emulate that look with Mary’s book. One of the Dell books had a map on the back cover and I thought this would work well with Mary’s book, as one of her stories was set in Gatlinburg, and I was excited to see what David could come up with. After we got the stories edited and assembled and the cover approved, we sent Mary a contract and some $$ and Aaron got to work on the book layout. We also sent out approximately 30-40 advances of her book, to various magazines and interested persons we thought might want to review or promote it. The last thing we did was help set up a mini tour, mainly on the west coast, as well as Chicago, and a handful of other random cities. Mary’s book is pretty indicative of the process, though, as I said, each book and author are unique and require unique handling.

Cobalt: Tell me about the design process for SF/LD books and where the author fits into it.

Ellen: Each book has been a unique process. With Michelle Orange’s Sicily Papers, for instance, given that it is a book of nonfiction travel writing, the passport design just seemed to fit. We never played with any other cover. With our latest book, however, Dylan Nice’s Other Kinds, Aaron and I spent a number of weeks discussing cover ideas with Dylan, and bringing in David Kramer (who had also done the cover art for Mary Miller’s Big World as well as my chapbook, Before You She Was a Pit Bull) to see what was feasible. David did a couple different mockups and we showed them to Dylan and got his input. We really aim to match the feel of the book to the cover, obviously. And to please the author. As well as ourselves.

Cobalt: Why do you think there has been such an influx of independent publishers over the past several years, and where do you think this market is going?

Ellen: It’s become increasingly easy to publish without the backing of big companies due to desktop publishing and the use of the Internet and social medias for hyping your shit. Seems like it’s more up to the individual – author or small press publisher – and how much work he/she is willing to do as far as promoting his/her self or his/her press in getting the work out and having a voice. Seems like this is becoming more true all the time. The size of the press seems less relevant than how much hyping you’re willing to do.

Cobalt: What one thing separates SF/LD from other independent presses?

Ellen: Ummm…our awesomeness? I think our design quality is pretty top-notch, as is the quality/diversity/uniqueness of the manuscripts we’re accepting. That’s at least two things. Shoulda just left it at “our awesomeness.”

About Elizabeth: Elizabeth Ellen is the author of Before You She Was a Pit Bull (Future Tense), Sixteen Miles Outside of Phoenix (Rose Metal Press) and Fast Machine (SF/LD). She coedits Hobart and oversees Short Flight/Long Drive books. Most significantly, she’s from the Midwest.

Some awesome links:

Interview: Paul Lisicky

Cobalt: Over the last year or so I’ve read Lawnboy, The Burning House, and now Unbuilt Projects.  Your work seems to be getting shorter – or happening in shorter increments – which I find interesting. Also, though, I noticed that your language has changed, sometimes quite dramatically.  Lawnboy has moments of lyricism, but for the most part it’s pretty straightforward.  The Burning House, though, has a completely different tone, and the words move differently.  Unbuilt Projects has that slightly modernist (ish) resonance also, to some extent, and also keeps coming back to Virginia Woolf.  Has this shift been a deliberate writing choice, or has it evolved more organically?

Paul Lisicky: It’s very cool to have that noticed. I like the challenge of working in smaller, tighter spaces, and I want to write work that operates on several levels at once, like a poem. It’s harder to get that several-level feeling in a long, long narrative. I think the work might just be getting closer to how I am in the world. I’ve always chosen my words carefully. I didn’t talk much from grades four through eleven. I was pretty interior, painfully shy, as they say. If you’d asked me how I felt about things, I would have much preferred playing it on the piano than speaking it aloud.

I haven’t exactly willed these changes. I can’t imagine what it would be like to do one signature thing and do it again and again until you bore yourself to death. I’d rather tear it all down with each project and become an amateur all over again – that’s where the energy is for me. My own changes probably have a lot to do with what I’m reading and teaching.  I’m always coming under the influence of something new. Part of it, too, is that the world changes so drastically from moment to moment. 2012 is far away from 2002, if not in clock time, than in emotional time, and I don’t know how not to let those changes into the work, at least in terms of surface.

Cobalt: The duck in “The Boy and his Mother are Stuck!” reminded me of the ducks in Catcher in the Rye, in that now I wonder if your stories are where the ducks in Central Park go in the winter.  I guess this isn’t exactly a question.

Lisicky: I haven’t reread Salinger in years but that book was incredibly important to me. I’m going to sound like a geek, but it was the first novel that I loved in high school. (That and The Valley of the Dolls, honestly.) Forget Gatsby, or any of the books we were supposed to like. I wonder if on some level I assimilated Holden’s ducks, but then again a lot of that piece is pretty autobiographical, and my brother Bobby really did want a duck when my mother was pregnant. He wept bitterly when a baby came out instead.

I guess Holden’s ducks only vanish temporarily; they come back every spring. My own work is full of vanishings, but creatures seem to find their way back home, or at least they’re never fully lost. I’m thinking about that sentence near the beginning of The Burning House. The narrator tests out a notion, a feeling: “The world was made exactly for us, and we’d never have to leave it.” I’m not sure he knows what that means. I’m not sure I do either, and I’m okay with leaving it at that. There are also moments like that in the final pages of Unbuilt Projects.

Cobalt: You mentioned Valley of the Dolls, which is also one of my long-ago favorites (my high school girlfriend used to pick books to read to me on the school’s lawn, and that was one of them).  Your books strike me as “literature,” whether or not that is your plan, and not “fiction.”  In publishing/bookselling/criticism right now, there is a lot of discourse about good vs. bad, or more important vs. less important, novels. Do you think there are bad books?  Or types of books that have more or less merit than other books?

Lisicky: It’s hard to talk about any of this without sounding like a total jerk, but I’m stirred up by a book that tends to feel impelled, which is a fancy way of saying: a book that feels like it needed to be written. The writer is trying to work out some problem: emotional, intellectual, whatever. Not even to solve anything, but just to see something through. Sometimes it’s an I’m-not-going-to-be-able-to-live-with-myself-if-I-don’t-write-this sort of feeling. A book like this can be awkward in spots. It can be messy. But it’s often playful. You sense the writer is having some fun, entertaining himself, even if the content is grave. It’s the kind of the thing that’s often dismissed by a prize committee. It has a mind of its own, and it isn’t interested in good taste or good manners. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m not interested in craft, because language and structure are crucial. Idiosyncrasy too; it often doesn’t sound like anything else. I mean, pick up Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies and it’s Jane. A vision is captured in that syntax, the flat and anxious dialogue, the mesh of description.

As for The Valley of the Dolls – Well, the adult me might say it doesn’t live up to anything I’ve said above, but I was into it as a teenager. Maybe I just sensed that Jacqueline Susann was having some fun, getting off on writing smutty things.

Cobalt: In one of the pieces in Unbuilt Projects, the narrator speaks of “the big red forgetting machine.”  Do you think that stories offer that salvation – if one puts The Thing, whatever The Thing is, into a story, can one then let it go?  I wondered because stories seem like a record of action, thought, memory, but maybe they’re not.  Maybe they are more like the warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lisicky: I don’t think you ever let The Thing go. I think you might be able to let one iteration of The Thing go. But there are so many different ways to tell a story. Memory mutates all the time, and I think you’re right about the warehouse. The story is scaffolding, windows, a floor, a roof, but The Thing demands many houses, and The Thing is probably a city, built over decades. And The Thing never gets fully finished.

Cobalt: Speaking of memory, Famous Builder.  Do you still want to be a builder? When you talk about places like Rotonda West you seem both at one with the notion of planning and determined that planners should do better with the world around them (sawgrasses and animals, for example). Do you feel that your writing performs a similar function to planning and building?

Lisicky: At some point as a teenager, I must have sensed that I was interested in the poetry of building rather than in dealing with planning boards, contractors, mobsters, payoffs. I probably would have been an abysmal businessman. I would have cared much more about the names I gave to my streets and model houses than the bottom line. I would have cared too more about making space for trees and animals and creeks. I would have gone bankrupt in six months, but I would have left behind some vacant streets with friendly, peculiar names.

This is probably not the most attractive thing to say, but one of the things I love about writing is that you can pretty much be the boss of it. It’s not collaborative until the editor and copy editor get in on it. You don’t have to be too concerned with compromise or concessions. It’s a vision, just the way a city is a vision. I guess I am building a new city with each book, and that’s probably why I keep coming back to the architectural-planning metaphors over and over.

Cobalt: I was going to ask you whether or not you find being categorized as a Gay Writer is liberating or constricting, or whether you even think that you are categorized thusly, but then I started thinking about geography and I wondered instead if you think of yourself more as a New Jersey writer or a Florida writer. Both places happen all the time in your writing, and you never sound like you’re just a visitor in either.

Lisicky: My work is lucky enough to be in many overlapping worlds at once: literary fiction, creative nonfiction, gay literature, poetry, etc. etc. etc. I keep thinking of that Fiona Apple line: “I just want to feel everything,” which she repeats as a kind of mantra (creed?). I think it’s actually a statement against the constraints of any kind of categorization, whether we’re talking about emotional policing or the branding of artists. Both New Jersey and Florida are present in my work, but so is the Bay Area, Long Island, Provincetown, North Carolina, South Carolina. I guess I just want to write everything.

Cobalt: You seem to have an affinity for smaller, more independent presses as homes for  your books.   Do you find that working with these publishers creates a space for you, the writer, to have more ownership of your book, or is there some other attraction?

Lisicky: I’ve always had a say in how my books looked. I don’t think that’s always the case when you’re working with a trade house. In the past I had very close brushes with trade house deals, all of which fell through in the last hour. I thought that was something I was supposed to want. At a certain point I thought, no. I’d rather my book stay around, I’d rather it be published by someone who was really into it, who cared about it as much as I did. There was a time not so long ago when every literary novel had to present like a potential commercial hit in order to be considered by a trade house. I couldn’t write that kind of thing even if I wanted to. Luckily I think we’re past that era; we’re a lot more like poets these days. Poor, but we can pretty much do what we want.

Cobalt: Back to Unbuilt Projects – in “Two Tales,” you describe Mike’s “screwy smile, barely concealing his secret animal.”  Your blog is called Mystery Beast.  These things may or may not be related, but they made me curious.  What does someone’s “secret animal” mean to you?  What does yours mean to you?  I’m not asking what yours is – it’s a secret, after all – but where it comes from, or where it leads you.

Lisicky: It’s probably not wise to try to explain one’s metaphors, but here’s a stab at it. Sexuality, music, the wordless, the nonlinear, the lyric – I think it’s all of those things. God? Him/Her too.

Cobalt: Your work tends to include all of those, “Sexuality, music, the wordless, the nonlinear, the lyric,” at every turn.  Which of your books, stories, essays, etc., do you think best exemplifies the search for the secret animal?  Not your secret animal, precisely, but the archetypal search itself.

Lisicky: I guess I’d vote for The Narrow Door, which is the memoir that’s coming out in two years. It’s about my long friendship with the writer Denise Gess, who died back in 2009. In some ways the book is really about learning to see, in memory, a person who was very dear to me, but whose choices bewildered me at times. The traits I mentioned above – sexuality, the lyric, the nonlinear – that was Denise. Or at least an important aspect of who she was. So I think the book in part wants to be open to darkness, not just to the darkness in her, but to the darkness in myself, and to the people I’m close to. And maybe to find some grace within the mess.

About Paul: Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, and The Burning House. His work has appeared in Fence, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review,
Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Story Quarterly, Tin House, and many other magazines and anthologies. Unbuilt Projects is forthcoming from Four Way Books this October. A memoir, The Narrow Door, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2014. He is the New Voices Professor in the MFA Program
at Rutgers-Camden.

Read Paul Lisicky’s “Bulldog” from Cobalt Issue 2.

Publisher Series Vol. 2: Publishing Genius

Cobalt: Tell us a little bit about Publishing Genius. How did you get started? What do you publish?

Adam Robinson: I started Publishing Genius in 2006, after months and months of interviewing other small presses — none of whom I can even remember, actually, because they aren’t the small presses I associate with today. I didn’t know anything at the time. Then I saw Stephanie Barber’s really cool and great chapbook, poems, which is just a saddle-stitched, half-letter style book, but also very lovely looking. I decided then that I was making too big of deal out of the whole thing, and set out to make similar short and simple books, then grow from there. Now there is an online journal called Everyday Genius, a chapbook series, and of course the regular books, which are poetry and literary fiction. I have a definite preference for unusual writing, things that I don’t immediately understand but that make me want to spend more time understanding what they’re about, what they’re doing.

Cobalt: How do you obtain the manuscripts that you publish?

Robinson: About 65% are from submissions.

Cobalt: How many books have come from previously unpublished authors?

Robinson: Of the 19 books that I consider to be not chapbooks, meaning longer than chapbooks somehow, 8 of them were by people who didn’t have any sort of book before. But even most of them had a chapbook of some sort.

Cobalt: You employ a lot of electronic media in your publishing business. What do you consider some of the most important tools for book publishers? How do you think social media has changed the landscape for book promotion?

Robinson: Well, I’ve been blogging since NPR was trying to figure out what blogging was, but it wasn’t until I connected with what you might call the “small press milieu” that I found the community necessary to keep PG afloat. Nowadays, though, blogging is “micro-blogging,” and I’m a little mystified by that. And as “the community” grows it also gets thinner because people who used to keep cool blogs, sites that allowed you to get to know them a bit, now just write for HTMLGiant or whatever. It feels a little less personal, and I really require personality to connect, and I require connection to promote books. I hate, hate, hate using Facebook as a “platform.” I hate sending out mass emails. I can’t get into Twitter. Everything makes me feel like I’m at the bookfair at AWP with 1000s of people walking past my table, and we’re all afraid to engage each other. A combination of Twitter, Facebook, and HTMLGiant is the cause of all this. For a lot of people it’s also the solution, and I get that, but I think I’ve lost all my angles.

Cobalt: In the early stages of publishing a book from a new author, what are some of the first steps that you take as the publisher, and what are some of the responsibilities that you ask of the author?

Robinson: First I email them and say I like their book and want to publish it, and I say “it will probably come out in the spring next year” or something, like 12 months away. I am not like some other small presses that plan a few years ahead. I’ve done that and when it comes time to start working on a book I’m like, “what the heck is this book?” I have to find my way into what I was thinking when I had accepted it 18 months earlier. So then we start working on it loosely. I build a timeline that inevitably falls apart, sometimes sooner than later. There are about 35 things on the timeline, like, “Assign ISBN” which is easy — there’s a column that says that’s my job — and “Make decisions about book size, format, blurbs, print qty” and that’s the job of both me and the author, and it’s fun. It’s the Dream Big stage. Then we do a contract, a standard thing, totally boring and confusing. There’s a line called “Initial review list complete,” which is something that the author and I both work on, listing people we think might be interested in the book. There are a lot of things that are just for me, like get the books listed with the distributor and various things about the printing. The things that are just for the author are like, “Signoff on layout.”

And after I accept a book the author usually works on the manuscript for a couple weeks or a month, tidying it up because it might have been a while since they looked at it, then I give my official editorial feedback. Sometimes one of my friends like Michael Kimball or Stephanie Barber or Joe Young will talk to me about the book for a while and I’ll include those thoughts in my notes. Then the author and I sit down and talk about it a lot. Like Rachel Glaser came to Baltimore a couple times and I’ve gone to NYC to meet people, or like Melissa Broder, we g-chatted for hours. Shane Jones and I sent thousands of emails — literally thousands, usually short — about what’s what. I went up to Providence, RI to sit down with Mairéad Byrne and go over her book, pretty much line by line. Then the author takes my notes and sends back a final manuscript. Often, when it’s poetry, Chris Toll will take his red pencil to it. Chris has an eagle eye, and a discerning one, so he’ll not just proofread but offer feedback and disagreements (“I’m just trying to help,” he says) which I’ll filter back to the author, who then sends another final manuscript. Then I’ll do the page layout. Someone else usually does the cover. Stephanie Barber’s been doing them a lot lately. I’ve got the editorial and production process down pretty well. I don’t think anyone has a system that would be better for me.

Cobalt: What’s one book that you’ve published that really stands out? Was there something different about the process of publishing it?

Robinson: Every book stands out to me. Every one is different. Maybe I liked the process of publishing Chris Toll’s book the best because we talked about it all the time, often over dinner. We’d be at some dim restaurant, hunched over a version of the manuscript, using his iPhone as a flashlight. Maybe my favorite story is Matthew Simmons’s A Jello Horse, because it was a total breeze. He sent it as a chapbook, I think, but it’s about 10,000 words, which I thought was too long, but I loved it and wanted to publish it somehow, so we did it anyway. It just happened, almost completely outside of me somehow, like the Lord reached down and there it was. And it sold like crazy, got reviewed in The Stranger and The Believer, I had to keep printing more of them.

About Adam: Adam Robinson’s first book, Adam Robison and Other Poems, was nominated for the 2010 Goodreads Reader’s Choice award. He self-published his second book, Say Poem, and self-awarded it second place in The Stupid River Prize. He was raised in Upstate New York.

Interview: Brian Spears

Cobalt: As I was reading your book, “Witness in Exile”, I noticed that you use form frequently and don’t shy away from hard rhymes. Do you have any thoughts on their place, or their absence, in contemporary poetry?

Brian Spears: It seems to me that the world of contemporary poetry is defined as much by its variety, by its fractured nature, as anything. I see formal poetry in a number of journals as well in collections that come across my desk as poetry editor for The Rumpus, so I don’t find there to be a particular absence. What I tend to see in collections is a combination of forms – sonnets beside prose poems beside free verse lyrics beside some more experimental piece. There’s not so much of that in my book – the experimental stuff anyway – but I’m comfortable playing with forms if they work for me and abandoning them if they don’t. And I suspect lots of people writing today do the same thing.

Cobalt: You write about intensely personal subject matter both in your poetry and in essays for your blog and The Rumpus. When writers put the personal into their work, people often feel they know the individual which makes it acceptable to discuss the writer’s life, instead of the work, make assumptions about the missing pieces, and judge the author’s life choices. What are your feelings on those types of assumptions and how do you handle these situations when they arise? 

Spears: It’s understandable that people do that, but it’s a really sloppy way of reading, whether you’re talking about poetry or essays or blog posts. I remember  back in grad school being warned that all writers are liars, or that you should at least assume they are in their work. I don’t go that far, but I do assume that if a person is writing personal stuff, they’re holding something back, even if they don’t intend to. I mean, there’s no way to be objective about your own life, right? So there’s going to be some sort of filter in place.

On the rare occasions when someone makes that sort of assumption about me and I’m able to respond, I try to give more context. I don’t really care if someone makes a judgment about my life choices. I’ve been disowned by my parents because I left the church they’re still members of. What can a reader do to me that can top that?

Cobalt: When publishing your book you worked with a small press, Louisiana Literature Press, run by Southeastern Louisiana University. Could you talk a little bit about what that experience has been like and why you chose to publish with a small press.

Spears: Ha! I chose to publish with a small press because they would have me. I received my undergraduate degree from Southeastern Louisiana University, which meant I had a close relationship with the people at the press. I’d published a handful of poems in the journal Louisiana Literature (and had been rejected more than once as well), so I approached them with my book. I was frustrated with the contest model and was looking for other possible avenues to publish and they were interested.

Working with them has been terrific. Jack Bedell was very open to the way I wanted the book to look – he let my partner Amy Letter design the book cover, for example – and was really great about working with me on making sure it came out the way it did. He’s doing that on half a shoestring, by the way. There was some real concern that his budget, limited as it was, would disappear before the book made it to print.

The upside of working with a small press is that you get to really be hands-on. That’s the downside too, at least in terms of the amount of work you have to do, both putting it together and in selling it once it comes out. There was no money for a book tour or for advertising, so I had to hustle it. I made a nuisance of myself on Facebook and Twitter, I set up readings, I sent out review copies from my author hoard. But that’s the reality of today’s publishing model for the most part, especially for poetry. If you want to sell books, you have to sell them yourself.

Cobalt: As poetry editor at The Rumpus you’ve also recently published “The Rumpus Original Poetry Anthology” which makes use of audio and video alongside selected pieces. Since I am woefully behind in technology (the book is only available for the iPad), I haven’t yet had a chance to see the book, but I’m excited by the integration. What kind of impact do you think technology and this multimedia approach to bookmaking will have on poetry?

Spears: It opens up all sorts of possibilities for experimentation, and I’m as excited as anyone to see where it will go. I’m especially excited about the multimedia side of things, because while it’s nice to be able to read poetry on an e-device (it’s actually easier on my eye than a paper book is at this point), there’s this huge chance to really expand the way we perceive poetry. Plenty of people are already doing poem/movies for example, or integrating animation into the work. This gives people the chance to access poetry in a whole new way.

It won’t be the only direction poetry goes, though. I think there’s been a renaissance in hand-made books and book art that’s another response to the problems with the current publishing model. And I suspect the printed poetry collection will continue for at least the near term. The contest model, much as I dislike it, does work from an economic standpoint.

Cobalt: As someone who operates on various levels in the writing world, how do you shift between these roles? Specifically, how does your treatment of poetry vary from being a reader, to being a poet, to being an editor?

Spears: Shifting is really hard. I haven’t really figured it out yet.

When I read for myself, I’m looking to be captured by a book, and if you want to know what captures me, check out the books I’ve selected for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club over the last year and a half. If you find a pattern, let me know.

I find that what I tend to be captured by as a reader is not what I tend to write myself, at least not lately. I’ve been tending toward more experimental stuff (for me). The manuscript I have out now is a series I did in 2010 built around the play-by-play of Cubs games mixed with found text from online and meat world sources. I did one for every game of the season that year, which completely destroyed my ability to listen to baseball games for all of last year. And I just recently started an erasure project I’m tentatively calling Founding Documents which digs into the Journals of the Continental Congress. We’ll see how that one goes.

I don’t really edit poetry other than my own. I solicit poems for The Rumpus, and I may make a suggestion here or there, but not often. Editing reviews–and we run over a hundred a year–is another matter. It’s been really helpful for me because I see tons of stuff I never would have heard of otherwise. There’s just so much being published that it’s impossible to keep up. I don’t read every book that we review, but I read a lot of them that I wouldn’t have even heard of if I didn’t do this.

Cobalt: Speaking of all of the different roles you play, you are also a parent and a writing educator. Do you feel that poetry is losing its place in today’s education? If so, what do you think is causing this?

Spears: I wonder how much of a place poetry has ever really had in today’s education? My memory of poetry in high school was being forced to memorize “All the World’s a Stage” as a freshman, learning about forms as a sophomore and reading American poets as a junior, and the only reason any of it really stuck was because that last teacher, Nancy McKee, wrote e.e. cummings’s “in just Spring” on the chalkboard from memory, and I thought “you can do that?” I was hooked.

I honestly don’t know how much, if any poetry is taught in high school classrooms, but I suspect that the people who are going to be hit by it are the ones who have teachers like I did, who throw something on the board in, I am convinced, a desperate attempt to connect with someone in the class.

About Brian: Brian Spears is the Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and Editor of “The Rumpus Original Poetry Anthology”, a multimedia collection of poetry for the iPad. His first collection of poetry, “A Witness in Exile”, was published in 2011 by Louisiana Literature Press. He currently lives in Des Moines, IA, where he teaches at Drake University.

Interview: Jess Stoner

Cobalt: Tell us about Choose Your Own Adventures. And You’re Going to Die Jess Wigent. Please.

Stoner: I loved the crap out of those books.  Even though I always cheated.  Paul Fournel, of Oulipo, did a choose your own that was fun in McSweeney’s #22.  Also–there was always this image floating around the internets. So the chapbook just came out of play.  Also, though my husband and I were just dating then, I felt assured that we were in it to win it and was thinking about what would happen if I changed my name (from Wigent to Stoner). Way back in 2010 it was a finalist in the Fact-Simile Equinox Chapbook competition, although it changed a bunch before it came out last month.  JenMarie Davis and Travis Macdonald of Fact-Simile are really great–they make Poet Trading Cards and really beautiful, handmade, labor-intensive, books that are objects that are gifts.

Cobalt: You told me that you wrote I Have Blinded Myself Writing This entirely in the Adobe inDesign program. Did you treat the program as a typical word processor, except with extra toys? Or were there specific differences and challenges presented by using this tool rather than something more standard?

Jess Stoner: Ha! Your question made me think of someone smoking a pipe saying, “You typed your book in Word? How quaint. I typed mine in InDesign.” I actually only know about 1/5 of what InDesign can do, but I felt like I couldn’t write unless I knew what the pages looked like.  I wanted to control where the lines were broken in the prose and manage and measure, a bit compulsively, the white space.  I needed to see the gutters, change the kerning, the leading.  I needed to work in spreads, moving back and forth between pages. Whenever I was going through drafts, I always printed in spreads, so I could feel  how the pages, the progression, worked. When Aaron Burch and Elizabeth Ellen and I were working on the book, I felt kind of nervous, that I had “taken away” his control, but he was super cool; and I think (hope) that Elizabeth Ellen, when she first read the book, saw that it was already the object it had to be.

Cobalt: What were your initial goals for I Have Blinded Myself Writing This? How much has this book changed from its first iteration? What prompted some of these changes?

Stoner: I started the book at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I became obsessed with text and image.  The first iterations (it was also my thesis) had much less text–the images and design were meant to reveal and not reveal everything.  Looking back, the book almost felt aggressively resistant to telling a story.  I think it was obnoxious.  That being said, when I revisited it a few years later, the story didn’t change at all.  Everything that happens in the first drafts happens in the final, I just realized I was doing the book a disservice by not inviting readers into the layers of context that would give the book the texture and, hopefully, emotional connection I wanted.  For instance, Teddy is much more realized in the final book.  Which, maybe, isn’t saying a whole lot, since a number of people have mentioned they wanted to know more about him.  I really struggled with how much to reveal about other characters, considering that they only “exist” in the narrator’s memories.  For instance, Teddy doesn’t speak in the book; he spoke in the conversations she remembers–which is different.

Cobalt: The end result is what appears to be a composition notebook, like those we used in grade school, but the inside is beautifully crafted, typed, and designed. When I think of a composition notebook, I think of the most basic, low-tech writing tool; in comparison to inDesign, which is high-tech. How do you justify the bipolar nature of the final book design, inside and out?

Stoner: First of all, I love this question! Your reaction speaks to everything I ever wanted–that what you’re reading is meant to be this private thing, but the book is still, you know, a book like any other on the shelf.  If you felt this tension, if you wondered about it or questioned it, well then I am freaking thrilled. In the days of the book being obnoxious, I was like: I’m going to longhand this book–I’m going to publish all five copies of it in the narrator’s handwriting.  But that would’ve meant losing the tension between the private document and the printed book.  I’m fascinated by the experience, the intellectual and emotional and physical act of reading.  And this is the very reason why I sent the book to Short Flight/Long Drive, because the beautiful books they publish (Adam Novy’s The Avian Gospels is perfection), well they get it.  The “form,” the objectness of their books, is wedded to the content, the experience of reading the story.  I would’ve been devastated if Elizabeth had passed on mine, because the books she was publishing were already doing what I most hoped to do with mine.

Cobalt: I think it’s worth asking right about now: how do you define a “book?”

Stoner: Oh jeez.  You know.  Let me think.  I’m not one of those people who worship at the shrine of the printed page.  (Victoria Dahl, a contemporary romance novelist I really like, put this up on her twitter a while back, in response to e-book outrage: “You’re reading paper, not eating pussy,” which made my day).  I feel afraid of answering this question wrong.  Maybe a book is a thing that has in it an invitation to a universe of its own creation?  Argh, I’m failing hard here.   Is it wrong to not care about settling on a definition? Is that lazy? Lily Hoang wrote a great piece for HTML Giant about the books that exploded her expectations, and how she still seeks that feeling, even if she doesn’t find it as often anymore.  I think maybe I’m more interested not in defining a book, but in discovering all the still-new things books can do.  Even if they’re only new to me.

Cobalt: You’ve published these two books (I Have Blinded Myself Writing This and You’re Going to Die Jess Wigent) through two different independent publishers: Short Flight/Long Drive and Fact-Simile, respectively. In what ways did the process of publishing with these presses differ? How were they similar?

Stoner: The two presses are amazing and amazingly different.  Fact-simile makes things hand-made, exquisitely and friskily designed–but they’re very hands off.  I thought we would edit the book together a bunch, especially as it had been accepted for publication two years prior.  But I think they see their role differently–like they’re conduits of poetry.  I hope they don’t mind me saying that.  I also knew Travis and JenMarie.  They were my neighbors in Denver.  I didn’t know Elizabeth or Aaron at all.  I knew Hobart; I knew Adam Novy’s book, which I loved so much.  So as we were going through edits and talking about design-stuff, I felt like we were online dating.  Or maybe that was just Elizabeth, who I’ve hardly hung out with, but I feel like should be my email best friend forever.  We spent months emailing back and forth before we did anything with the book (because they were working on Karl Taro Greenfeld’s NowTrends and EE’s Fast Machine).  When it was time to get into the details, to rid the book of the infection of “that”s which I’m so fond of, to make its sentences better, to make it better, well I really loved that process.  Even when we’re we were just copyediting, it felt like a collaboration.  I feel really lucky that both of these books ended up with these presses.  And that they believe in them and wanted to see them in the world.

Cobalt: Do you think that the modern author needs to be better-versed in tools such as inDesign, in order to get a competitive edge? Or, perhaps, that publishers might be looking for more “finished products” than they used to be?

Stoner: That’s a really interesting question.  I’m not a publisher, but if I was, I don’t think “finished products” would interest me as much.  My use of InDesign didn’t make my book a finished product; I just needed InDesign to write it.  Elizabeth and Aaron made the book a finished product.  I didn’t make the cover; I suggested the composition notebook and then Elizabeth and Aaron ran with it and made it so much better than I ever would have.  I’m using Word to write the book I’m working on now, even though it depends way more on images.  I think submitting a “finished product” would mean losing the opportunity to collaborate with publishers, the very people you wanted to work with in the first place.

Cobalt: What other advice would you offer to an author seeking to publish their first book through an independent press?

Stoner:  The same advice everyone gives: read the books the presses publish.  Better than that, buy them.  Support them.  Join the community, go to readings, read the publishers’ interviews, read their own work.   It saves everyone time and most importantly, it can save the writer the crushing heartbreak of rejection.  I overhead someone telling someone else at AWP that they weren’t buying anything, they were just taking whatever they got for free, and I thought and nearly said out loud: you are an asshat.  If you aren’t willing to spend $8 on a book, a publisher shouldn’t have to spend weeks with you, editing your work; a publisher shouldn’t have to invest time and money on your behalf if you aren’t willing to do the same.  Dang, I got overheated.  But I just made breakfast, came back and read that paragraph, and I still feel the same way.

About Jess: Jess Stoner’s novel, I Have Blinded Myself Writing This, is out from Hobart’s Short Flight/Long Drive Books. Her choose-your-own-adventure poetry chapbook, You’re Going to Die Jess Wigent, was recently published by Fact-Simile. Her fiction, poetry, essays and reviews have been published or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Two Serious Ladies, Caketrain, Everyday Genius, Alice Blue Review, and other handsome journals. Jess lives in the sweat and breakfast tacos of Austin with her husband Frank Stoner, who is a bad-ass rollerblader-linguist, and she’s the Education Programs Coordinator at Badgerdog Literary Publishing.

Interview: Matt Bell

I first met Matt Bell at the Conversations and Connections Conference, hosted by Barrelhouse, in Washington, D.C.  Matt was leading a workshop on repetition. He also had copies of his collection How They Were Found available, which I happily picked up. Now, Matt has his first novel(la), Cataclysm Baby, out from Mud Luscious Press. I found the book haunting, beautifully written, and wholly Matt Bell. I hope you enjoy this exclusive interview as much as I did.  —Andrew

Cobalt: Your first book, How They Were Found (Keyhole, 2010), was a collection of short stories. What were some of the differences between the publishing of that book, and the publishing of Cataclysm Baby (Mud Luscious, 2012)? Some of the similarities?

Matt Bell: I’m trying to think about what some of the similarities were! They both got written in very different ways, in part because How They Were Found only became a book manuscript after the stories were written individually, whereas I knew Cataclysm Baby would be a novella-in-shorts almost immediately. So the process definitely differed in scope at the time of drafting. And of course the publishing process has been different for each book, as Keyhole and MLP are fairly different presses. But both allowed me to be very hands-on with the design process, and that was something I really appreciated.

Cobalt: Tell me about your story, “The Cartographer’s Girl.” Where did it originate, and how did it take shape?

Bell: Sometimes I get obsessed about a piece of language, and have to go looking for a story in which to put it, so I can stop thinking about it all the time. This was one of those stories: “cartographer” is one of my favorite words, and I just wanted to put it to good use. So it really started from that, and the bulk of the story was discovered as I went. I think originally it was a much more formal exercise, and then once I found the narrative it moved in the direction of story.

Cobalt: Why this form, in Cataclysm Baby? Or, I should ask, why the alphabetized names? Was this an effort – or a struggle – to create order where there otherwise is none?

Bell: The alphabetized names grew out of the suggestion in the opening section: That father names his children of a book of baby names, a “sequenced failure,” and that suggested that there could be more stories, more children, more fathers. It was less a way to create order (although it does do that), and more a way of driving generation: I had titles long before I had the contents that would be printed below them, and sometimes I wrote from those titles, or toward them.

Cobalt: Are you a father? If so, what statement are you making in Cataclysm Baby? If not, how did you dare to write this?

Bell: I’m not, but I’m not sure that bars me from writing stories about parents, any more than my lack of having been a wolf prevents me from retelling “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Cobalt: Do you have a favorite chapter, like a father would have a favorite child?

Bell: My allegiances are slippery things, and so it changes from time to time. Usually my favorite is whatever I’m having fun performing at readings at the time. “Svara, Sveta, Sylvana” is a favorite for readings, as is “Walker, Wallace, Warren,” and so those are safe picks.

Cobalt: Jill Williams, our poetry editor, claims that some of your “chapters” are really poetry. How aware were you of the poetic nature of your language when you were writing this book?

Bell: I think that all the fiction writers I admire most are very aware of the poetic nature of language, and that, conversely, anyone who isn’t working with the acoustics of their words is probably not writing very well. Clearly some people are more conscious of this than others. It’d be wonderful to do it more instinctively, but it’s something I’ve worked at, building upon what was natural to me, what was already most pleasing or interesting or discomfiting. I read my work aloud often as part of the process, with the belief that even if a reader never hears the fiction aloud—if the only place the words sound is in their head—then the power of those acoustic events set in the prose still occurs, creating some bodily effect on the reader. That’s too great a tool not to take advantage of at every opportunity.

Cobalt: I once heard you lecture on the usefulness of repetition in literary work. What are some of the ways that you have incorporated repetition into your own?

Bell: I gave the lecture on repetition because I had been studying it in response to my realizing how heavily I lean on repetition as a tool, and how pleasing it is to me as a reader. So what you heard in that lecture was part of my own process of exploration, going from instinct to a form of attention, where I’m watching and listening for opportunities to repeat and to build upon. I think when I was a younger writer I thought that the way you got from point A to point B was to innovate along the way, to continually be introducing novelty into the plot and the prose. Now I think that the best fictions work with a much smaller amount of elements, and that repetition can allow for a slow unspooling of sound or sense of story, an unpacking of what is already there.

Cobalt: You have an extraordinary presence in the social literary community. You’re involved with Dzanc Books and The Collagist, and it seems as though you have a fingers in many other pies as well. How do you define yourself as a writer/editor, and, perhaps more importantly, how do you manage your time?

Bell: I realized a couple of years ago that I had, at least broadly speaking, the life I wanted: I was able to write every day, I enjoyed the editing work I was doing for Dzanc, I was teaching and reviewing and generally able to participate in a handful of incredible literary communities. This was great, of course, and it occurred to me that what I was doing was less about being a writer and more about living a literary life: All of these things were adding up to a satisfying whole, and I was lucky to get to do so many different things. I’d like to think that if there comes a time where I can’t write anymore, then I’ll still me just as happy to be editing or teaching—and if those are all parts of the same life, then a day where my teaching has to take priority over my writing feels like less of an imposition.

As for time management, all I’ll say is this: I try to write first, every morning, before I do anything else. That puts the writing in a place of privilege, so that no matter how badly the rest of the day goes, at least I’ll have done that.

Cobalt: In your opinion, what are some tools that no young writer should go without?

Bell: Curiosity as a reader and a writer, generosity toward other writers, and a writing schedule you can actually keep. Those three things will take you a long way.

About Matt: Matt Bell is the author of Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a collection of fiction. His stories have been selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. He is the editor at Dzanc Books and The Collagist, and in Fall 2012 he will begin teaching creative writing at Northern Michigan University.

Interview with Ron Tanner

Cobalt: At what stage – particularly in the writing of Kiss Me, Stranger – did the illustrations come in? What role do they play in the development of your writing?

Ron Tanner:  I was doing illustrations for a draft of From Animal House to Our House when it occurred to me that I could do illustrations for Kiss Me, Stranger.  I decided that  illustrations would give Kiss Me, Stranger an edge – and they would make sense, be organic to the book, because the illustrations would be from the 14 children in the story.  As for Animal House, it had to have illustrations because there are so many visuals to reference in a book about old house renovation.

Cobalt: In Kiss Me, Stranger, you destroy the world. Then, in From Animal House to Our House, you build a home from the ruins. How have the experiences of writing these two books differed?

Tanner: One is a fantasy; the other is a dream come true. But both are about holding things together when times are tough. Not that I’ve had a hard life, but I have learned that one of life’s lessons is to persevere.  As the Brits used to say, we must carry on.  The impossible situation of From Animal House to Our House is a kind of war or besiegement.

Writing that book was  tougher because it’s a memoir and a chronicle. I had to get things right, or as right as I could, and make a very messy situation sensible. That’s the challenge of writing nonfiction: life is very, very messy. You can clean it up in fiction, that is, make a lean, focused story. Much harder to do in nonfiction. And mostly you do it (in nonfiction) by leaving things out.

Cobalt: I also find that the illustrations of your backyard remind me of what I imagine Penelope’s backyard in Kiss Me, Stranger to look like. As if large objects could suddenly emerge from the surface. And the row houses you illustrated are much like those that Baltimore is famous for. How have your surroundings informed your creative work?

Tanner:  Place matters. It just so happens that I wrote the first draft of Kiss Me, Stranger when I was subletting a seedy apartment after my wife at the time had left the marriage.  I was devastated and living in devastatingly depressing surroundings.  And, yes, I used Baltimore as a model of the city in that book.

From Animal House to Our House I wrote in the very house the book celebrates. Obviously, this old house is deep in my bones, to the extent that I could have written about it even if I were living in, say, Antarctica.

Cobalt: Has From Animal House to Our House, been in the works as long as the house has? That is to say: did you have the intention of chronicling the “love story” from the outset?

Tanner:  I did not think to write this book until more than one friend suggested it. Then it made sense. As soon as I started writing it, about 6 years ago, I knew it had to be a love story because that’s what the house is all about – I bought the wrecked frat house because Jill really wanted it and I really wanted her. We love old  houses and renovated  this house as an expression of love, which is why we call our website Houselove.

Cobalt: It seems that writing From Animal House to Our House has given you a chance to double-dip in your passions. What is your favorite experience related to the publishing of this book?

Tanner: I’m now on a 66-city tour for the book. I’m traveling all over the country and meeting with preservationists and historic neighborhood associations, so I get to inhabit my role as a DIY expert (I’ve just become a licensed home inspector). That’s a blast because, on the one hand, it’s something completely different for the professorial me and, on the other, it centers me in my passion for teaching – I love to impart information and help people get smarter.

Cobalt: Finally, you and I have discussed the many ways that different creative writing programs prepare their students for life as a writer. What do you think, as an educator, is the most important tool not being taught in the traditional writing programs?

Tanner: Survival skills. Very few graduate writing programs are taking the time to orient their students to the full-spectrum life as a writer. As a result, many MFA grads enter the world thinking that they are going to make money writing fiction or the writing world at that.

First, students should know that the world needs writers – all kinds of writers in all kinds of fields. Writing is a highly valuable and highly valued skill. If you want to make a living writing, then consider the full spectrum: everything from technical writing to public relations.  If you want a teaching job in a university, get a Ph.D. and/or publish really, really well.

Second, plenty of writers do other things than teaching. I don’t think this message gets transmitted clearly in grad school – mainly because the fledgling writer’s primary role model is the writer-as-teacher. My hope is that people go into teaching because they love teaching, not because they’re simply trying to make ends meet and like the flexible schedule.

Third, writers need to know technology – the more, the better – because everything nowadays having to do with writing is heavily entwined with technology.  Today’s writer needs a website, for example, and a blog and should know how to format emails as e-flyers and, dare I say it, format their manuscripts as e-books.  Fight this change, if  you feel you must, but those who fight it will get left behind.

Or, rather, those who fight this change will end up paying somebody else to do these things for them. I believe in being wholly self-reliant and I encourage my students to be the same so that they have maximum flexibility, which will likely lead to more opportunity.   That’s the message I’d like grad programs to impart: we increase our opportunities by increasing the scope of our writing, the kind of work we might like to do, and the kinds of things we are able to do with technology.

About Ron: Ron Tanner’s awards for writing include a Faulkner Society gold medal, a Pushcart Prize, a New Letters Award, a Best of the Web Award, and many others. He has won fellowships from the Copernicus Society, Sewanee Writers Conference, and the Maryland Arts Council, to name a few, and his stories and essays have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including The Iowa Review, West Branch, and the Massachusetts Review.

His books include A Bed of Nails (stories), Kiss Me Stranger (illustrated novel), and From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story (memoir). He teaches writing at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland, and directs the Marshall Islands Story Project ( He and his wife, Jill, live in a former fraternity house that they saved from ruin and renovated to its former Victorian glory. You can find out more about the house at

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