Thursday, January 19, 2017

Q&A with Rion Amilcar Scott

Rion Amilcar Scott, photo by Rebecca Aranda Photography
Rion Amilcar Scott is the author of the new story collection Insurrections. His work has been published in a variety of publications, including The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, and The Rumpus. He teaches English at Bowie State University in Maryland. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the fictional community of Cross River, Maryland, in which your stories are set?

A: Years before I wrote fiction seriously I composed a horrible short story about a slave revolt. The idea stuck with me when I started thinking about a canvas or backdrop for my fiction. Cross River is a nice little toy chest I can dip into and pull out dolls and action figures and stuffed animals and cars to play with. 

Q: How did you choose the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?

A: I originally had a different title that was, in retrospect, far less interesting and said much less. My editor suggested Insurrections from the last story in the book, "Three Insurrections." It felt appropriate as I imagine all of these characters as children of the insurrection that founded Cross River.  

Q: In addition to the setting of Cross River, what other common themes do you see running through the stories?

A: Fatherhood and masculinity were things that kept coming back as I worked through the book. There's also the struggle to realize whatever you are truly meant to be while carrying the weight of history.

Q: How did you select the order in which the stories would appear in the book?

A: The order is largely the suggestion of my editor, Lisa Williams. I envisioned an order that moved in a much more predictable way. Her rearrangement showed me the weakness of some of the stories that I later dropped. The story that is first, "Good Times," was always first and the story that comes last, "Three Insurrections," was always last.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: More Cross River stories. There are a lot of sides to the town that will take many books to truly explore. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Anything else is you need to know will be in the books. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 19

Jan. 19, 1809: Edgar Allan Poe born.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Q&A with Molly Haskell

Molly Haskell, photo by Jim Carpenter
Molly Haskell is the author of the new biography Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films. Her other books include Love and Other Infectious Diseases and Frankly, My Dear: "Gone with the Wind" Revisited. She has been the film critic for the Village Voice, New York magazine and Vogue, and has taught at Columbia, Barnard, and Sarah Lawrence. She lives in New York City.

Q: You write, “I had never been an ardent fan” of Steven Spielberg’s work. Why was that, and did your work on this book change your opinion?

A: I think because he was working in fantasy and genres that didn’t appeal to me—thrillers, Jaws. I have come to think of Jaws differently, maybe not E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It was a challenge. I was not sympathetic to these genres. What turned me into a movie nut was European films. He and George Lucas were [going in a different direction]. Directors [had been] making European-style movies with Hollywood movies, and the nature of film production was changing.

[There was a move] into summer hits and blockbusters, and Steven Spielberg seemed responsible for that. That’s why I wasn’t a fan, though some of his later films, I did like some and liked them even better as I wrote the book…

Q: You opted to tell his story through his films. Why did you choose that approach?

A: [Spielberg has said] all my life is in my films. That’s how I wanted to tell the story. I looked forward to the opportunity of seeing the films again.

That leads to the question, Did I meet him.

Q: Yes, I was going to ask you that!

A: No. Thank goodness I didn’t. I made an inquiry. [Not speaking with him] gave me the freedom to write about the movies in a critical way…

The reason his assistant gave was he does not talk to biographers. He didn’t talk to [biographer] Joseph McBride. There were interviews that Spielberg gave to journalists. I had words from his mouth. The person McBride didn’t talk to was his mother. She was pretty uninhibited.

It’s a blessing to me. Everybody says, Did you talk to him? For me, it worked out perfectly! He knows how to turn on the charm. He has negative things in his repertoire too—he’s a control freak. He can probably be ruthless on the set. But he probably would have been all charm…

Q: The book is part of a series on Jewish lives. What impact has Judaism had on Spielberg and his work?

A: Some books in the Jewish Lives series don’t deal with Judaism much, but I felt it was crucial with Spielberg. He lived in Gentile suburbs. His father was a brain in computers—they moved to New Jersey and Phoenix. He felt like a fish out of water.

He had an Orthodox grandfather who wore Jewish garb and ate kosher. On the other hand, he had assimilationist parents. He lived in a largely Catholic neighborhood in New Jersey. They’d tease him about killing Jesus. It was very wounding.

The first sense of belonging he got—he never liked synagogue—was when he joined the Boy Scouts. You can see the themes of the outsider in his films, and it became specifically Jewish with Schindler’s List. It was brave of him. He did not see it as a money maker.

His son Max was born, and it was a real conversion experience for him. He needed to feel and see where he was genealogically and in terms of his religious heritage. He divorced Amy [Irving] soon after, and took up with Kate Capshaw, a blonde Texan. She converted. I think conversion to Judaism was something she really felt. Not only did that consolidate his own Judaism but it brought him back to a reconciliation with his father…

It’s realizing somehow you can see how your sense of self on earth changes when you’re in a line of succession. The films changed—he’s got all these children now, and feels he’s got to initiate them into the world.

It first started with Schindler’s List. A woman [he met] said you’ve got to do something, and he started the [USC] Shoah Foundation. It’s a big part of his coming to responsibility and a sense of Judaism. For the most part, he’s handled it well.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment I’m trying to get through publicizing [this book] and I have two deadlines. I did a big piece for an academic project…essays about the Golden Age of the early ‘70s, Scorsese, Coppola.

I thought I was going to do women’s films that came out then—Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Woman Under the Influence—about women being baffled and wanting to change their lives. I did a very long piece on that, going back and looking at them again.

I [am looking at the new] movie 20th Century Women with Annette Bening, which takes place in 1979. I’ve been thinking a lot about that period. I’m doing a review of 20th Century Women for a British [publication]. I fell in love with it. It’s an ensemble piece—Annette Bening is the single mother of a 12-year-old. It’s a strong communal feeling you don’t often get in films.

Women think they want to see women unadulterated, aging, but they don’t. They don’t want to see Annette Bening aging. [The movie is] part comedy of manners and part mother-son love story…I did an interview with Annette Bening for the New York Film Society’s publication. I had to do it by phone. She was really wonderful…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The reviews [of the book] are coming in, and some think it’s feminist and some don’t...When I wrote a book about Gone With the Wind the film critics loved it. With Spielberg, they all knew his career so well, and they all think they should write the book. I think there’s some of that…

I don’t think every filmmaker has to be a great director of women, but if you have a blind spot where adult women are concerned, you have to be called on it. It is a blind spot with Spielberg. He hasn’t tried to do movies on adult women or adult love.

I think I’m also anxious about what he would think. I would like to send him a copy. I’m doing [an event] at the Metrograph theater—I chose Empire of the Sun. The woman running it said somebody had run into Spielberg and he said if I’m in town I would have come by.

I probably would have heard from his lawyers if he had [not liked the book]. It would be wonderful if he dropped in. I certainly didn’t want to [antagonize] him. I think he probably would like it. I took him seriously and gave him his due.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Molly Haskell, please click here.

Jan. 18

Jan. 18, 1882: A.A. Milne born.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Q&A with Michelle Ross

Michelle Ross is the author of the new story collection There's So Much They Haven't Told You. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Common and Cream City Review, and she is fiction editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Q: You noted in an essay about your writing for Fiction Southeast, "What I’m guilty of is honesty, the very thing I strive to achieve in fiction." Why is honesty your top priority in your work, and how would you define honesty in this context?

A: My son’s Montessori school teaches and celebrates a new virtue each month, and this month, as advertised by the marquee sign out front, the virtue is honesty.

That honesty is the first virtue of the new year is most likely coincidence, but it strikes me as an apt choice for January. The beginning of a new year is a chance to shed the baggage, whether it be failures or disappointments or whatever, of the previous year and start fresh. It’s a chance to be honest with ourselves about where we are and where we’d like to be.

It’s my absolute favorite time of the year. I clean the house, the garage, the yard. I purge. I purchase a new planner. I record new goals. I feel hopeful, determined to make positive changes.
When I talk about honesty in fiction, I’m talking about a similar act of shedding and renewal. I’m trying to shed the words that fail or disappoint because they feel too familiar, expected, or easy. I’m trying to get at a hidden thing underneath despite not knowing what that thing looks like.

I’m trying to re-see again and again, just as I do when I declutter the house, so that I can then throw out the stuff that is just in the way (like I recently did the big box of margarita glasses that has been setting on a closet shelf in my house, unused, for nearly 10 years).

To be honest in fiction, in all art I think, requires a willingness to shed again and again until there’s nothing left to shed. It requires that I listen to that voice that is telling me that despite how hard I’ve worked and how tired I am, there’s more work to be done. It’s not an easy task.

So many times I’ve thought I had written an honest paragraph or scene or story, only to discover later that there were more layers to be shed. (Sometimes, though much less often now than in the past, I make the foolish, awful mistake of submitting said story out before it has shed all it needs to shed.)

Talking about honesty in fiction can sound so enigmatic because honesty in fiction is instinctual; it can’t be boiled down to a set of rules the way that punctuation is. At the same time, it’s not an instinct that necessarily comes easily, like the instinct to avoid foods that smell or taste rotten. It may require practice and intention.

Despite how many times I’ve decluttered spaces in my house over the years, still my house becomes cluttered again. Initially this may occur simply because I’m too busy. But eventually what happens is I stop seeing the clutter. I feel the stress the clutter induces, but I don’t connect the dots.

And then when I finally do see the clutter, I realize that all this time, I’ve just been tuned out, not paying attention. It happens in writing fiction too, unfortunately.

Why is honesty so important? Because without it, a story just isn’t that great, even if the sentences are gorgeously written. The story feels hollow, dissatisfying. Like someone re-gifting you a bunch of junk from their house so that now it can clutter your house instead.

Q: How did you pick the book's title, and what does it signify for you?

A: One of my favorite story collections is Eric Puchner’s Music Through the Floor. Puchner’s book takes its title from a phrase within one of the stories in the collection. I really like that. I’m not fond of how titling a collection after the title of one story weights that story so much more than the others.

There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You comes from the first story in my collection, “Atoms.” It’s excerpted from a line of dialogue the boy character speaks to the girl. It’s an invitation, a seduction. I like the way that line beckons the reader, as if saying “Lean in closer, let me tell you a secret,” only here what’s being offered seems to be an endless evening of secrets.

Q: Do you see common themes running through the stories in this collection?

A: I admit I struggle to talk about theme. Every time someone asks me what my book is about, I squirm. I have this same problem with individual stories too.

Maybe this is just my failing, but a Flannery O’Connor quotation, from Mystery and Manners, comes to mind: “When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.”

The difficulty with talking about theme is that it simplifies a story. I know that I won’t do the story justice talking about it in this manner. I am the world’s worst salesperson. Also, I’m the kind of writer who seems bent toward adding more, more, more into a story. I’ve been told that some of my stories have too many themes.

So here’s a list of various themes (or subject matter) that are recurring in my collection. Will I leave some out? Inevitably.

Themes: science, horror films, girlhood, growing up, family dysfunction, longing, regret, loneliness, betrayal, fear, fairy tales, friendship, failure, order and chaos, death, faith and doubt, good and evil, work, hierarchies, heartbreak, loss of innocence, acting responsibly versus pursuing one’s desires, selfishness versus altruism, injustice, mothers and daughters, class and education, self-preservation.

Q: How did you select the order in which the stories would appear?

A: Because my collection is a mix of flash fiction and longer fiction (eight flash fiction pieces to be exact, the rest of the stories 1,500 words or more, but most 4,000 words or longer), I made sure to avoid placing two flash fictions next to each other.

I took into consideration a number of other factors as well: point of view, subject matter, tone, setting, imagery that the stories opened and ended with, etc.

I wanted to vary the stories, but at the same time I wanted stories to have a kind of conversation with each other, to complicate or deepen each other by means of their vicinity.

For instance, “If My Mother Was the Final Girl” and “Prologue,” the second and third stories in my collection, both invoke the story of Hansel and Gretel and are told by protagonists who are working with fractured pieces of their mothers’ pasts. I thought that placing them next to each other would perhaps add extra depth to each.

“How Many Ways Can You Die on a Bus?” the sixth story, ends with the word, “sex,” so “Sex Ed.” seemed like an apt follow-up. “Ventriloquy” ends with an image of two women setting a doll man afloat in a pond, so I followed it with “When the Cottonmouths Come to Feed,” which opens with an image of two cottonmouths swimming in the protagonist’s koi pond.

With 23 stories, I don’t think there is one perfect arrangement, so I tried to keep that in mind. Otherwise, I would have driven myself crazy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing more short fiction and some creative nonfiction. I’ve written several stories for a collection that I’m imagining will consist of all stories that evoke classic horror films, including a story inspired by the original King Kong (as well as James Whale’s Frankenstein) and another drawing on James Whale’s The Invisible Man.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 17

Jan. 17, 1820: Anne Bronte born.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Q&A with David Eric Tomlinson

David Eric Tomlinson is the author of the new novel The Midnight Man. His work has appeared in publications including Zouch Magazine and Phantom Drift, and he lives in Dallas.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Midnight Man, and why did you set most of it in the 1990s?

A: I was jogging. Lungs burning, legs hurting. Suddenly an image comes to me: a man running along the railroad tracks that bisect downtown Oklahoma City. Where was this guy running? What was he running from? I spent the next five years trying to answer that question.

I grew up in the manufacturing town of Perry, Oklahoma, and had always wanted to write about the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City. Perry is where Timothy McVeigh was caught, one hour and 18 minutes after detonating his bomb.

The bombing, I decided would be my subject. Early drafts involved only a few characters. There were several detours and false starts. At one point I was writing flashbacks that followed Timothy McVeigh as he prepared for the event. But it was very dark, too dark, and I ended up cutting all of this.

Eventually the story grew into a more structurally complex but emotionally satisfying one. It takes the social forces of that time and place, personifies them – in five very different characters – and follows each, as he or she struggles with complicated racial, political, and social pressures.

While the historical and political forces of the time are all converging toward a horrifying climax, these five characters are overcoming those same forces, to form a kind of family unit. You realize, in the end, that we’re all going to be okay. It’s a much more hopeful vision than the thriller I set out to write.

Q: You tell the story from a variety of perspectives. Were there some of the characters that you especially enjoyed writing about?

A: This is really a very simple book. It’s a story about family – about finding the family you need, rather than the one you’re born into. Each of the five main characters has some work to do on themselves, some sort of emotional arc. What none of the characters realizes is that they can’t possibly do this work on their own.

In the beginning, everyone is very much alone. As the novel progresses, the characters begin pushing up against – and then slowly empathizing with – those who think and act in fundamentally different ways. We don’t become the best version of ourselves in a vacuum. It takes the humility and wisdom to ask for, and to accept, help from others.

All this being said, “Big” Ben Porter was the most interesting character to write. He was also the most difficult. The most complicated. Ben is a bigger than life character – ambitious, successful, funny, manipulative, somewhat dangerous. He represents an acquisitive, power-hungry approach to life that I’m very much opposed to. The character arc I envisioned for him was: “to help someone other than himself.”

In the early drafts, I had a lot of trouble writing Ben. Basically, I didn’t respect him. It wasn’t until I stopped judging him, and began seeing the world from Ben’s point of view, that I really began to understand how he could be, not just an interesting character, but even a heroic one.

Q: How would you describe the racial dynamics among the various characters?

A: It would be hard to write a novel about and around the Oklahoma City bombing without addressing race directly. I wanted to show these characters struggling with very real racial tensions, which necessarily requires some uncomfortable moments – but then successfully resolving them. We’re all much more alike than we are different.

I think the racial interactions in The Midnight Man are true to that time and place. Both Ben and Cecil are products of an earlier, uglier era, when racial slurs were often used in casual conversation. Dean Goodnight (a Choctaw Indian) and Aura Jefferson (an African American) are subjected to the kind of racial micro-aggressions, at work and at play, which people often intend as humorous asides. Depending on the audience, sometimes the joke lands, or, more often, it feels like a wound.

Something I came to understand, while writing this book, was the difference between bigotry and racism. Bigotry, one character explains to another, is a personal construct. It’s a feeling. Racism, however, is the institutionalized effect of that feeling. A bigot in a position of power – the power to deny someone the vote, or a home loan, or railroad them into jail – becomes a very dangerous animal.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The working title of the novel was originally American Prayer, after The Doors song, which is quoted in the epigraph. My agent suggested The Midnight Man. It’s a phrase used by a child, to describe Aura Jefferson’s dead brother Carl.

I like the new title because it captures the racial undercurrent running throughout the story, while simultaneously honoring the murder victim who brings all of these characters together.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another novel, though I’ve become superstitious about discussing my unfinished work, and so don’t want to talk much about it. I will say that there is only one main character, so structurally it’s much simpler, and it’s written in the past tense.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m hosting a book launch, in Dallas, on Jan. 16, and a few other readings – in Oklahoma, Texas, and elsewhere – throughout 2017. There is also a book club discussion guide provided at the end of the novel. I’m happy to come talk to your club about the story (either in person or via Skype). You can learn more about all of that on my website.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb