“[B]e surprised by the process,” an interview with Jessica McHugh

Jessica McHugh is a novelist, a 2x Bram Stoker Award®-nominated poet, and an internationally-produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-five books published in thirteen years, including her bizarro romp, The Green Kangaroos, her YA series, The Darla Decker Diaries, and her Elgin Award-nominated blackout poetry collection, A Complex Accident of Life. For more info about publications and blackout poetry commissions, please visit McHughniverse.com.

Here, she answers a few questions about her art, and how she got involved with blackout poetry.

Q: How is the experience of reading/absorbing blackout poetry different than that of traditionally written poetry?

A: I think the main difference is the amount of time you spend reading the piece, especially if the “blackout” portion is more complex and/or takes on the personality of the poem, which is what I try to do with my work. If the source material is apparent, I might spend even more time reading and re-reading, because the blackout poem sometimes honors and uplifts the original piece, whether it was intentional or not. And while I prefer to include a typed version of the poem with my pieces, not everyone does that, and if the blackout art doesn’t create a legible path for the eye, the poem might be more difficult to read/interpret and require a little more work to enjoy.

Otherwise, I think it’s a pretty similar experience. I’ve written poetry and monologues using blackout poetry techniques without actually creating a blackout piece, and I don’t think most readers would know I used a nontraditional method if I didn’t mention it. It’s an incredibly fun and versatile art form.

Q: With your unique work, you have carved out a niche in the horror writing community. How has the support of that community bolstered both your books/work and your sense of self as an artist?

A: It’s been an interesting journey, for sure. Since my first novel publication in 2008, I’ve had ups and down with my career and seen several iterations of the horror community. I’ve seen folks band together, I’ve seen them devour each other, I’ve seen people lose relevance due to an unwillingness to change with the times, and I’ve seen people going through darkness flourish with the support of their peers and come out better and brighter on the other side.

I count myself incredibly lucky to have found lifelong friends in this community and support throughout the phases of my career. Despite experimenting with playwrighting, my young adult series, and other mediums, I remained focused on horror novels and short stories and thought I’d stay on that trajectory. I never would’ve guessed that after 14 years and 25 published books, I’d be a 2x Bram Stoker Award nominee for my poetry, but I also never expected to fall in love with blackout art so quickly after I started playing around with it in early 2019. Nor did I expect such an outpouring of support from the community. While I will continue to write in whatever genre and format strike my fancy, the way blackout poetry rekindled my artistic passion after a long period of doubt, and how my horror friendos lifted me out of my gloom and doom to embrace my new artistic endeavors, makes me think blackout poetry will be a massive part of my life forever

Q: Can you tell us more about your Little Women blackout poetry? How it compares to or differs from your work in Strange Nests and A Complex Accident of Life?

A: Absolutely! My 3rd as-yet-untitled blackout poetry collection, inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, is definitely my most ambitious project so far. It will have 155 poems to coincide with the novel’s 155th anniversary in 2023, which is triple the number of poems in both A Complex Accident of Life and Strange Nests. That wasn’t my original intention, but I’ve come to realize that “original intentions” don’t matter much when it comes to these collections. A Complex Accident of Life only became a collection because Jacob Haddon of Apokrupha saw me posting Frankenstein blackout poetry and reached out about compiling the pieces. Strange Nests wasn’t planned either; it was more of a coping mechanism after my brother passed away in January 2021 and transformed into something so much more. So I’ve rolled with the punches and allowed myself to be surprised by the process. Deciding to make a lot more poems from Little Women has opened up the narrative in a huge way and allowed me to explore weirder paths, giving the collection more of a cosmic horror feel while remaining a fierce tale of sisterhood, selfhood, and feminine rage. While an official release date has not been set yet, it will probably be available from Apokrupha around April 2023. 

Q: Finally, is there a text you have your eye on for a future project? Are you willing to share what that is?

A: For collections, I’ll likely keep using classics written by women for as long as possible, and while I’d have to verify these are in the public domain, I’d love to play with Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and pretty much any Agatha Christie. Outside of that theme, I’m also eager to make some creepy holiday pieces from A Christmas Carol. But really, I’m open to giving anything and everything a shot. I’ve found beautiful poetry in the most unlikely places, and I never get tired of discovering the hidden treasures within. 

To commission your own blackout poem, contact Jessica here.

Writing Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops: Guest Post from Allison Hong Merrill

The blog took a spring break, but is back with Allison Hong Merrill, author of the bestselling and award-winning memoir Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops. Here, Allison tells us about the process of rebuilding and restructuring her memoir after receiving beta reader feedback, and shares some of her best writing tips. Thank you, Allison!

When reading a book, I like to see the hook, setting, character, and conflicts of the story set up within the first few pages. So I make sure to offer my reader the same gift.

Originally, my memoir, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, was written in a nonlinear structure. But several of my beta readers suggested that I revamp the entire manuscript and change the narrative into a chronological timeline, so I did. It was a huge undertaking. The manuscript went through twelve full revisions. On average, each pass took two weeks. And when I say, “I revamped the entire manuscript,” I mean I even changed the title. It went from Grafted Mandarin to Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops because the new structure is in ninety-nine short sections. But even after this major overhaul and subsequent edits, the first ten pages remained unchanged from the first draft to the published book. It’s because the inciting incident, setting, main characters, and conflicts of the story are established within those pages.

When writing a book, I like to do the following:

1. Imagine my book adapted into a film, then I write scenes and dialogue as if describing them from the movie.

2. Do book research and save images on pinterest.com to create a mood board for reference. For a visual person like myself, this method works really well.

3. I make myself a different writing-related promise and a reward every week. This is not a goal; it’s a promise. A goal is for reference, a promise is to be kept. Some examples of my promises are: write an hour every day, revise a chapter, create social media content. If I keep my promise that week, I reward myself. My top three rewards are: watch a movie, buy a cute notebook, sleep in on Sunday morning. If, for any reason, I fail to keep my promise, then I give myself a second chance in the following week to restore my integrity and try again. Sometimes it’s necessary to promise myself to practice the art of self-care. I’ll take a week off from writing to recharge my creative energy. I work with another writer as accountability sisters. We check in every Saturday morning to support each other and to celebrate our victories, big and small.

4. I’m a memoirist. To dive deeper into my memory, I keep a tin box of NIVEA crème on my desk. Its distinctive scent takes me back to my childhood years and, from there, I get to explore the past and find inspirations for my writing projects. Smell triggers memory. If you’re writing about your past, please consider keeping something (lotion, soap, shampoo, perfume, scented candle, essential oil, etc.) on your desk with a scent that reminds you of the olden days.

5. Because I’m a visual person, instead of setting a timer on my phone, I flip over a sixty-minute hourglass on my desk to help me stay focused on one-uninterrupted-hour of writing.

I hope you find these tips helpful. Happy writing!

“We don’t create feminist horror; it imposes itself upon us,” an interview with Lindsay Merbaum

Lindsay Merbaum is a queer feminist author, workshop leader, high priestess of home mixology, editor, and more. Her debut novel, The Gold Persimmon, is available now.

Q: Feminist Horror is not new, but it does seem to be experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Can you tell us a little about the genre and its unique opportunities, and why people are celebrating it right now?

A: Feminist horror is borne from the experience of femmes and/or the female-bodied. Often our first encounter with real-life horror involves subtle interactions with imposed gender norms, or not-so-subtle acts of violence such as bullying, assault, and rape. In this sense, we don’t create feminist horror, it imposes itself upon us. In a time of renewed fascism, where the right to abortion access is disappearing before our eyes, where rates of domestic violence have soared during the pandemic, as the Earth continues to heat up, causing death and destruction, there is a renewed interest in finding ourselves in the stories that employ speculative and horror elements to address real-life occurrences. Fiction often expresses the unspeakable and, in this case, feminist horror explores the monstrous nature of misogyny in all its forms. 

Q: Your novel The Gold Persimmon has just debuted, to rave reviews, and is unlike any other work out there. Helen Phillips said “The Gold Persimmon is a place where grief, sex, and mystery mingle,” and the novel has been called “dark,” “experimental,” “queer,” “feminist,” “horror,” “eerie,” “atmospheric,” and more. How did you conceptualize this? Did you consider its classification as the story developed, or did you leave all of that to sort itself out later? 

A: I spent many years writing and re-writing The Gold Persimmon, but the only classification I applied to it was fiction. Of course I knew it was a queer book, but I didn’t realize others would see it as experimental, or even feminist horror, until it started to reach a wider audience outside of my editors and former agent. I think I wrote it the only way I could, in the only way that made sense to me. It turns out what I wrote is shocking to some, and deeply unsettling not only in content, but form as well. Readers find the shift from Part I to Part II to be jarring. They find themselves lost at times. To me, this contributes to its effect as a work of horror. I also believe that every reader’s experience of the text is valuable and interesting, regardless of whether or not they pick up on the connection between the two narratives the book contains. 

Q: In addition to being an author, you are also a mixologist and a workshop leader. How do these different parts of your life fit together?

A: I like to say I have two passions in life: books and booze. Mixology provides an outlet for bringing the two together, as I continue building a library of booktails: cocktails and mocktails inspired by books of all kinds. This work actually involves so many more passions, however, like photography, sculpture, and playing with food. I’ve got white chocolate skulls and marzipan teeth lying around, not to mention all the pounds of sugar I’ve dyed and scattered about. What I read is now largely dictated by what drinks I want to make, or by the authors who commission me to booktail-ize their work. As a result, I’ve gotten the chance to expand the scope of my reading and delve into genres I’d never explored deeply, like romance and sci-fi. It is an expensive project, though, both in terms of time and materials.

[To find out more about Lindsay’s booktails, including personalized potions, Ostara cards, recipe packages, and book + recipe bundles, go to her website.]

Q: What are you working on right now? Why are you excited about it (or them)? 

A: I’m slowly building a proposal for a book of booktails. My next novel is also currently out with beta readers. It’s about a magical midwestern queer bar, a locus for the riotous convergence of witches and goddesses. Though I pull from several mythologies, Sumerian myth looms largest, with the goddess Inanna taking center stage. Fun fact: the earliest recorded poetry was composed by Enheduanna, a Sumerian high priestess of Inanna. Born around 2300 B.C.E., Enheduanna was the high priestess of the most important temple in Ur, a city in the south of Sumer that embodied the culture of the time. She lived eleven hundred years before Homer–around five hundred before Abraham–and wrote her poetry about three hundred years after the cuneiform vocabulary had just developed to a point where poetic phrase was even possible

My next-next novel was inspired by Sami ancestor worship and the belief in an afterlife that is right under our feet, our steps mirrored toe-for-toe by those who came before. It’s the story of a lesbian marriage and it’s kind of like a combination of Outlander and Being John Malkovich.

“I look at everything as a story,” an interview with Christina Consolino

Christina Consolino, senior editor at Literary Mama, freelance writer and editor, and author of the award-winning novel Rewrite the Stars, shares what it was like to launch her first book during the pandemic, what she’s working on now, and why writers should always, always pay attention to the world around them. Thanks, Christina!

Q: Happy Book Birthday! You launched Rewrite the Stars during the pandemic last March, a novel that has landed as finalist for several awards and garnered an impressive list of blurbs. What was that experience like? What were the highs and lows of debuting when the world was (and still is) knocked sideways?

A: Thank you so much for having me here! It seems hard to believe so much time had passed! I signed a publishing contract in April 2020, after much of our world had effectively shut down, and my novel debuted in March 2021. Because Rewrite the Stars is my first novel, I had no experience to compare its launch to. In retrospect, I think that’s a good thing—my bar was set pretty low! (Which seems like a horrible thing to say as I strive to be an optimistic person.) Everything I did to get the book ready for publication and beyond—approach authors for blurbs, submit to awards, pitch to podcasts and the launch itself—was done virtually. As an introvert, I found the virtual route easier than if I had to do anything in person. As a woman with many obligations, I also found it easier to plan for a Zoom launch because finding an hour to do something is far more palatable than finding two hours.

Because I debuted a year into the pandemic and the world was used to the virtual platform but not completely fatigued by it yet, my launch was well attended and held an abundance of energy. I consider that launch a highlight! Having never had a novel out in the world, it was wonderful to see readers, supporters, writing partners, friends, and family with my book in their hands. A low point for me involves the lack of interest by the library and bookstore in the city my characters visit on vacation. The library especially plays a role in the story (and in my life when I visit), and I would have loved to find my book there or even hold a virtual reading. And while reader reviews have been positive, because the number of in-person events has been limited, the connection I’d love to forge with the reader has been dampened. (Thankfully, some readers feel comfortable emailing with a line or two about how the novel affected them. These words mean so, so much to me!)

Overall, the experience enlightened me to what an author must do to launch a book and keep the book present. It also showed how adaptable (or not) the book industry can be. I hope to apply everything I learned to the next book.

Q: I am always interested in a writer’s “other selves,” and the way those interests and lifestyle facets work together. You are a scientist as well as an author, having taught anatomy and physiology at the college level for years. How does writing affect your scientific brain, and how does your knowledge of science affect your writing?

A: Writing has always been near and dear to my heart, and years ago, I grappled with the choice to pursue a creative degree or a more practical degree. With guidance from well-intentioned parents who wanted me to be able to support myself fully, if necessary, I chose the practical route and earned a doctorate in physiology. But even as I lectured on the cardiac cycle or the structure of skeletal muscle, a little voice spoke to me. “Write,” it said. While my children—I have four—were little, that meant blogging; it’s all I had time or energy for, and capturing snapshots of our lives then, maybe inserting snark or finding the humor in them, fulfilled me. A decade ago, though, the voice changed from the generic one prodding me to write to a full character telling me their story. As you might know, it’s difficult to ignore a voice that’s constantly pestering you!

That’s a lot of (perhaps unnecessary) backstory, but I share it because the answer to your question took me years to fully realize. When I reflect back on my time in graduate school—even just the application and interview process—signs pointed to my true desires to write. At my interview with the graduate school chair at the time, a gastrointestinal physiologist, he said, “Your essay is quite different from what we normally see. It’s a beautiful story.” I often think back to that hour I spent with him. What if I’d recognized then that my stories needed to be told? Would I have left the physiology department with a polite “Thank you for your time,” and applied to English or creative writing instead? Who knows?

My point: I look at everything as a story, and I want to connect the dots, find a structure, and produce a storyline. When I taught, my lectures had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the “story” flowed, and I chose my words carefully, much like a writer does. And now, though I don’t teach science, I use that background every day, either in writing or in freelance editing. Being able to formulate questions, make suggestions, dig deeper, and test hypotheses serves me well in the writing arena and allows me to ask questions or hold a perspective that not everyone else has. Furthermore, most of my fiction revolves around some physical or mental health issue—the science lover in me still exists—and knowing the disease processes, how the body works, and what questions to ask puts me at an advantage when it comes time to do research.

Q: What project or projects are you working on right now? Why are you excited about it or them?

A: My work is mainly categorized as women’s fiction, and my next novel, The Chocolate Garden, is no exception. The story centers on seventy-seven-year-old Frank Raffaelo, a retired serviceman who loves his family but doesn’t always understand them or their motivations. An accidental fall forces Frank to face a fear—that his memory might be failing him—and rely on his three children: Gabe, the oldest, who’s overseas; Nico, the youngest, who is keeping a secret from his family; and Marissa, the middle child, who wants to feel like she belongs and matters to her family. Marissa is also a nurse practitioner, and with time, she realizes that while Frank might not show any abnormal cognitive changes, his wife of forty-two years, Angie, does. When Angie’s denial of her symptoms results in dangerous consequences, the Raffaelo family understands that life as they know it is about to change.

In 2015, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. That summer, I spent many hours with my parents, and I sat with my mother as she was assessed for cognitive changes and diagnosed with “changes consistent with Alzheimer’s” (definitive diagnosis can only occur upon autopsy). Since then, I’ve taken on the role of point person for her health and well-being. This book reflects my experiences since that summer and exposes the toil and hardship that dementia can cause for partners and families. I hope it resonates with readers who have had similar experiences and helps them realize that they and their loved ones aren’t alone.

Aside from The Chocolate Garden, a few other projects are also in the works, but it’s a little early to divulge any of their secrets!

Q: Finally, I believe the writing community thrives when writers support one another and share their experiences. What advice do you have for the rest of us for hanging on to our creative selves when life is so messy? What techniques can you share with us for finding energy when we’re running low on it? 

A: Finding solace in writing—which, for me, is usually a solitary affair—is something I do every day. Shutting off from the real world is integral to maintaining my personal health and well-being (and sometimes, those characters just won’t be quiet!). Times exist, though, when my virtual writing friends are just what I need. Despite my ineptitude with social media and my dislike of the venue, there’s a draw there, and it comes from the writing community. They are a generous, welcoming, safe lot that understands why you’re stressed about life. They know how difficult it is to find minutes to write between parents or kids or grandparents or jobs or partners or bouts of loneliness. They understand that messiness and offer you a listening ear, advice, encouragement—whatever you need. So one tip would be to involve yourself in a good writing community and become involved. And by involved, I mean don’t just lurk there (though that’s a good start!). Participate in whatever way you can. Comment on a post, share a post, read a book and review it. Make friends! These folks will be your lifeline through the whole publication process.

As for hanging onto creativity and finding energy . . . I think it’s important to have other creative outlets that bring us joy. When a story just isn’t working for me, I often bake. The process soothes me, I enjoy it, and I always have a finished product (that usually tastes great). Somehow, being able to hold something concrete in my hands energizes me and clears my head. Walks outside also help; the air and nature rejuvenate my cluttered mind. Lately, I’ve also relied on my fifteen-minute solution: I set a timer and concentrate for fifteen minutes on the task at hand. At the end of the time, I celebrate (usually just a mental high five) what I’ve accomplished. The task can be anything from my own writing project to a client’s manuscript to dusting my home or weeding the garden, and I get a lot accomplished in fifteen minutes. That sense of accomplishment helps fill the empty vessel within once again.

A Toast to Music and History: Guest post from Melanie Gall

Melanie Gall is a woman of many talents. She is an author, an editor, a historian, a musician, a performer, and more. She tours within and outside of the U.S., putting on shows full of razzle and dazzle and all that jazz: A Toast to Prohibition and A Talent to Amuse: The Noel Coward Story are just the latest. Check out her albums on her website, and preorder her book Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and the Golden Age of Hollywood here.

The other day, I was at New York’s Museum of Natural History with a couple of friends. Safely masked and vaxxed, for the first time since the pandemic began, we had a regular girls’ day out. As we wandered through the Hall of Gems and Minerals and then the Hall of Biodiversity, my friend noted that one of the stuffed bears had been in the collection since 1892.

“That’s a hundred and thirty years ago,” she said. “I wonder what New York was like back then?”

Without thinking I replied, “Easy. That’s the year Eddie Cantor was born in the tenements of the Lower East Side. It was when the anti-sparrow protection laws in New York were in full force, and the year Merry Gotham opened on Broadway.”

One friend was a lifelong New Yorker, so she took this all in stride. But the other gave me a look that made me pause. I was suddenly aware that it was a bit odd to have so many seemingly random bits of historic tidbits at the ready. At least, it would seem that way to someone whose writings didn’t center around presenting and preserving history.

You see, I’m a music historian. Over the pandemic, I wrote and secured a book deal for Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and the Golden Age of Hollywood, a biography of 1930s Hollywood star Deanna Durbin. And to properly understand and recount life of a forgotten historic figure—in a way that both serves history and presents the material in a compelling and relatable manner—there needs to be context. And to effectively build that context, I immersed myself in the popular culture of the time. And learned a lot of, well, unusual history.

Wondering about millinery trends in the early twentieth century? I got it. Pondering when the first “morality clauses” were introduced into Hollywood contracts? I’m your gal. Feel like hearing about the litigious nature of inventor Thomas Edison? Oh, don’t get me started…. So many random facts, and it’s all just part of the job.

You see, every writer needs the skills and tools to properly serve their genre, and this is something a lot of people don’t sit down and think about. If you’re writing Science Fiction, Fantasy, or any sort of Apocalyptic or Dystopic novel, you need to be able to build a world, defining and remaining consistent with the rules that govern your universe. There’s memoir, where the writer needs to be able to tell a personal story while looking beyond their often still-raw emotions to create a work that is both relatable and marketable. A mystery has to be mysterious. Erotica needs to actually be scintillating. And so on.

I recently edited a manuscript where the writer fully admitted that he had never read any other books in the genre. Not one. My first piece of advice (after “don’t capitalize every word you happen to like in the next draft or I’ll stab myself in the eye with a fork”) was, of course, for him to research the genre. Understand the conventions. Understand what is trite and what is original. And learn what tools you already have or that you need to gain to write the best book possible. And for a history book (and no matter how much I’d love to craft a world with magic gerbils and flying toasters, I know my strength is non-fiction) one of the strongest tools needed is an in-depth knowledge of the history surrounding and influencing the events in the book. Because as a author/historian, I’m not just preserving history, I’m making vital decisions about how it will be remembered. And that is a heavy responsibility.

It’s probably a good thing that there haven’t been any parties for the past two years, because I’d
probably be that person expounding upon the most random things while other people chat about the weather and the most recent Marvel film. But meanwhile, I’ve just finished my second book, which is a history of house sparrows in North America. And oh, you have no idea the crazy things I’ve learned….

“A Bargain at Twice the Price”

Published by Etched Onyx Magazine by Onyx Publications. Honorable Mention in the Winter Contest, 2021. Onyx Publications

If you had known Beth would leave two months after the closing date, you never would have bought the shoebox starter home on Oak View Drive in a sleepy commuter town with one shitty pizza joint and two convenience stores and nothing to do on weeknights but hang out at the rat-hole townie bar drinking too much bottom-shelf whiskey. [Click link for more.]

In My Room: Guest Post from Lara Tupper

Lara Tupper is the author of A Thousand and One Nights, Off Island, and Amphibians. She is also an accomplished folk singer. Photo by Elaina Mortali.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

– Blaise Pascal, French philosopher

I learned, from an early age, how to stay in my bedroom. Not always quietly, but alone. As my parents read in silence or watched Masterpiece Theater, I closed my bedroom door and tried to draw shapes with crayons. I made a collage of one wall, taping aspirational slogans and faces from Guess Jeans ads—those pouty models of the 80s. I acquired dozens of journals and filled them. I listened to Godspell and A Chorus Line on a record player from Sears and memorized every note. 

I was an only child, as you may have guessed. Was I lonely? Other children confused me. When forced to interact at school, I didn’t understand their jokes or secret handshakes. They were skilled in starting friendships and chasing balls around in gym. I knew how to talk to adults and belt out “Day By Day.” 

And so my room was the most comfortable space. I was allowed to be introspective and odd there, excellent circumstances for a writer in training. I continued to play the musicals on loop—I couldn’t seem to stop. They brought out something the journals didn’t. Joy, I’d call it now. 

I kept listening through high school and beyond, though I understood my soundtracks were uncool. In my college music library I disappeared with headphones and scratchy LPs for hours at a time. I became a jazz fan, a radio DJ. Then I found the courage to audition for an a cappella group called Quasimodal. I started to think of myself as a singer. I made this part of my vocation too. 

Little has changed, by which I mean I’d rather watch tick, tick…BOOM! than anything else on Netflix. I like to unwind by singing Simon and Garfunkel harmonies with my husband on the couch. It’s the necessary antidote to a writing life. Singing with others gets me out of myself. It has to, because it’s a collaborative effort. 

It provides instant gratification too. When performing live, I can gauge the audience reaction and understand if I’ve hit the mark. Or not.

Writing is the opposite. It’s the delicious, maddening strain of working and reworking the sounds in my head until I have no sense of them anymore. And there’s no guarantee the words will be read.

I require both modes to sustain my sanity now. I need the quiet room to hear myself think but I can’t stay there, alone, for too long. I need the small stage, or couch, to let myself be heard.

I give this prompt in my writing classes: Describe your childhood room. There’s good material there. The secrets under the bed, the tchotchkes on the shelf, the view out the window, the sounds of grown ups in rooms beyond. It’s a space that reveals something crucial about us, if we care to look. It’s the basis of who we become. 

“We do have a certain responsibility to be truthful,” an interview with Kelly Sundberg

Recently I had the opportunity to talk to Kelly Sundberg, author of the memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl, (Harper Collins) about truth, bravery, and authenticity.

Q: What is the project you are working on now? How does it different from your debut memoir, and how has your craft evolved since then?

A: I’m working on a collection of linked, lyric essays that is tentatively titled The Witching Hour: Essays From an After. This collection is very different from my memoir. My memoir was mostly narrative in terms of style, and though there were flashbacks, the story generally unfolded in a chronological manner. The Witching Hour, first of all, is essays because I’m writing about PTSD. I don’t believe that any narrative of PTSD can be told in a linear fashion, because PTSD doesn’t unfold in any linear way. The essays use form to mimic the obsessive thought patterns that accompany PTSD. There is a lot of repetition and circling back. One essay is an erasure of my ex-husband’s apologies that he wrote to me. Another one is about single parenting, and it’s written entirely in couplets. Accompanying the essays are artifacts and snippets from my life. It’s a weird book, but I think it’s good weird. I haven’t seen anything else quite like it. I think my craft is deepened and more sophisticated in this book. I’m really excited by what I’m doing in it, and it’s almost ready to send out. My biggest dream for this book is that it finds a publishing home where it’s really cherished and allowed to be the book that I dreamed it would be. I worried a lot about sales with the first book (even though folks advised me not to), and that worry didn’t serve me well. Worrying about sales forces you to completely project your hopes and aspirations onto something that’s out of your control.  I know now that all I can do is write the book that I want to write, then trust that it will find the readers it needs to find.

Q: You are known for being open and honest on social media. How does that relate to your work as a nonfiction author? Is that sort of radical honesty something that takes practice, like a tool to keep sharp?

A: I am known for being open and honest on social media, and though I’m not sure that’s always served me well, it is who I am. When I was in an abusive marriage, I had to keep a lot of secrets. I kept secrets to protect my ex, myself, my child, and because of shame. What happened is that my physical body got ill. I genuinely believe that secrets are like poison. Since then, I’ve committed myself to truth telling and to being my authentic self as much as possible. What that means is that I’m radically honest, even if that hurts me or puts me in a bad light. Ultimately, I’d rather have people in my life who like me as I truly am than people in my life who like a mirage of what I want to be. I mean, I’m not saying that I never lie. That would be completely disingenuous. What I’m saying is that I’ve identified honesty as a value that I care about, and I work very hard to live by my values.

I will say that the nonfiction world is small, and I think that all of us know of certain writers who embellish or are “truthy” or who outright lie, and that frustrates me a lot because folks in the community just kind of step aside and watch it happen. It’s easier to keep the peace than to speak out, you know? As nonfiction writers, I think that we do have a certain responsibility to be truthful, and if you’re not able to be truthful, then why not just write fiction?

I think it’s important to note that, because of my history, I have a genuine and sincere belief in accountability culture. I believe that folks should be held accountable, whether that’s through a call-out or a call-in, but I’m not some kind of vigilante. I’m someone who was harmed by an individual, then harmed even more by the people who covered for and/or defended him. I have a personal stake in this. I worry sometimes that folks think I’m inflexible or judgmental. I expressed this worry to a friend recently, and she said, “Kelly, you’re very generous and allow folks all kinds of room to be human. You just draw the line when it comes to liars and abusers.” I found some consolation there because I’m human, and I’ve harmed people in ways that sometimes keep me up at night. No one is perfect, and I’m not even close. But because of my history, I have to draw some lines for myself.

Q: Your essay and memoir topics often inspire others to share their stories with you, AND you’re a writing instructor who reads a lot of student work. How do you maintain your emotional boundaries and your empathy? How do you avoid burnout? 

A: Oh man, Wellbutrin? I don’t know that I have an answer for that question. The truth is that I don’t have great emotional boundaries. I cry in workshop when my students read something hard. I cry at home when I’m reading their essays. I feel for them. I wish that I could adopt some of them. I’m an instructor, and my job is to help their writing get better—not to fix their lives—because what I’m not is a therapist. Still, that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel it all in my heart and deeply wish that I could step in and help. I do help in the ways that I can. I listen, I offer advice that’s within the realm of my experience, and I make referrals to mental health providers when necessary. My classroom environment is very safe and inclusive, and I know that my students would back me up on that. And for every sad story that I read, there is a story of joy or triumph. I also get to see most of these students at the beginning of their adult lives, and I know that they are not defined by anything that has happened to them. One of my greatest joys is getting to see a student thrive years after graduation.

And as for burnout, it’s not reading student papers or holding their stories that causes me burnout. It is a gift to hold space for all of those stories. What causes me burnout is the world that we live in where so many of my students are not born into circumstances that are designed to help them succeed. Watching them struggle in the face of capitalism, institutionalized racism, ableism, etc., etc., etc. (while I struggle alongside them in many of the same ways), that’s what causes me burnout.

Q: Finally, would you offer some advice for those of us who are working on personal essays or memoirs? 

A: My advice would be to trust yourself and your voice. The best writers aren’t afraid to take risks because they trust themselves. If you take a risk, and you fail, you’ve still grown as a writer, and every risk gets you closer to success. It was when I really trusted myself to explore and experiment and question in my writing that it bloomed into something I was proud of. And honestly, trusting yourself and your ability to fail and come out alive is good advice for just about anything.

“I really need a deadline and accountability to be my most productive,” an interview with Heather Frese

Recently I had the chance to talk to my pal Heather Frese, author of The Baddest Girl on the Planet (Blair) about the challenges of writing while parenting and the importance of finding your “people.”

Q: What are some of your recent and current projects? What are you working on now?  

A: My debut novel, The Baddest Girl on the Planet, won the Lee Smith Novel Prize and was released in spring of 2021 (Blair). Prior to that, I’d published short stories and essays, and was shortlisted in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. I’m currently working on, or trying to work on, a big revision to a novel that’s been sitting in a metaphorical drawer for a long while now. I’ve got a few essays underway and I have some ideas percolating for a new novel, but nothing has solidified yet.

Q: Recently, we formed a small writing support/workshop group. What does that do for you or your writing? 

A: I really need a deadline and accountability to be my most productive, and this group gave me that. And it was an extra bonus to have that accountability provided by some of my favorite people! 

Q: Including our workshop group and friends outside of it, why is it important to you to connect with other busy writers? 

A: I think for me, after I finished my MFA program and moved, I had a bit of an identity crisis that was compounded by my transition into the overwhelming-ness that was early motherhood. So connecting with other busy writers was a really vital way to remind myself that I was, indeed, a writer. Even when I wasn’t really writing (and I had a good chunk of years where I was intensively mothering and not really writing), that connection was so important to me in maintaining the idea of myself as a writer, and kept me holding on to a near future where I would write again.

Q: What else is competing for your time? What other priorities and obligations are you trying to write around? 

A: I’m the primary caregiver to three young kids. They’re awesome little humans. They’re sweet and smart and hilarious, and oh boy do they take up nearly everything I have, mentally and physically. I came to realize pretty early into motherhood that I couldn’t write while they were awake and/or in my near vicinity. You can catch tiny snippets of time that way, like a sentence or to jot a note, but the sustained flow of creativity and concentration to really dig in and shape something? No. And I give mad props to all those authors who wake up at 3 or 4 or 5am to write, or who stay up until 3 or 4 or 5am to write, but I can’t do it. I’m just too exhausted. This fall my youngest started preschool a few mornings a week, so I drop everyone off at school, dash to a coffee shop, and try to switch gears and slam myself into writer-mode for a few hours. And it’s working! I’ve been so much more productive in those few kid-free hours than I’ve been in years of trying to work with kids in the house.

Q: How has being a part of communities helped your projects come together in the past? 

A: Having trusted critique partners has made a huge, huge, massive, giant impact on my writing. Oftentimes when I’m stuck on something, a writing partner will be able to quickly see what needs to happen or have an idea of how to fix things. Without that help, I’d be struggling for months before figuring it out, if I ever did. It’s also so important to have moral support and to know that I have people in my corner who understand what I’m trying to accomplish and are giving feedback based on getting the project to the vision that I have in mind, you know? Feeling like I’m not alone in this often overwhelming and demoralizing process of writing, revising, and publishing is so helpful.

Q: What recommendations do you have for writers out there who want to find a community of their own? 

A: Honestly, connecting online through social media was really powerful for me when I was living far away from my in-person communities or hadn’t found local writing friends yet. I know Facebook can be problematic, but it’s been a big positive for me in staying connected with other writers. I’d also say that it’s really important to find people who connect with your work and get what you’re trying to do. You don’t even have to write in similar styles or genres, but feeling that sense of connection or gelling with where the other person is coming from helps a lot.

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