Category Archives: interview

MFAs and What You’re Missing

mfas and what you're missing

An Interview with Fortunato Salazar and William VanDenBerg

William VanDenBerg: I’ve been thinking (perhaps because of watching a ridiculous amount of Olympics coverage) of the concept of training as a writer. How we get better? How we develop? How we improve? So—and this might be a ridiculously broad question—how do you feel you’ve developed as a writer? What sort of things have pushed you forward?

Fortunato Salazar: Because I’ve gone without formal training as a writer, I wouldn’t want to press too hard any skepticism I might have about the value of training. I’ll just say that in my own experience, I don’t see much evidence for a belief in control over how or whether I improve. I just assume that if I put in the time, make the effort, stay out of trouble, watch my back, either I’ll improve or I won’t; basically all I can do is hold up my end of the bargain.

You on the other hand are receiving formal training as a writer—you’ve just finished your first year in the MFA program at Brown. What’s the biggest surprise you’ve encountered in the MFA universe? Continue reading

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“We Also Get to Be Big”: An Interview with Eileen Myles

Eileen Myles

photo by Catherine Opie

I can’t remember the first time I heard of Eileen Myles, but I remember singing along to Le Tigre’s feminist anthem “Hot Topic,” in which they list feminist, LGBTQ, and progressive artists. Myles is one of them. When Inferno came out, I saw the reviews on my Facebook feed, and knew I had to read this book, subtitled “a poet’s novel.” The writing felt like Myles was talking right to me.

Myles taught a class in my graduate writing program, and I immediately signed up. We studied all kinds of works, in all genres, and she challenged us to read and write things that pushed up against the boundaries we had set for ourselves—and the boundaries that were set for us. That’s when I first read Chelsea Girls.

Chelsea Girls has recently been reissued, along with a collection of Myles’ old and new poems, I Must be Living Twice. Myles took time out of her book tour to answer a few questions.

I know you’ve been with smaller publishing houses before, but Ecco and HarperCollins are pretty big. What prompted the switch. Do you think this has any bigger implications for poetry? Continue reading

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Interview with Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch

I first read Lidia Yuknavitch’s anti-memoir, The Chronology of Water, in 2012, and I have carried my copy in my purse or tote bag ever since. The cover is frayed, impossibly bent, and held together with tape. After being lucky enough to get an advance copy of her latest novel, The Small Backs of Children, I now carry around that, too.

The Small Backs of Children is a book about a girl. But it’s also about art-making, life-making, motherlove, creating family, and overcoming the things life hurls at us. The book centers around The Writer, a woman whose daughter died in utero and was later stillborn. After The Writer is hospitalized, her friends and family rally around her to bring her back. They remember a photograph that she loved; that of a girl in a war-torn village, backlit by an explosion that killed her family. They decide to find that girl and bring her to the States, hoping to ease The Writer’s suicidal depression.

But what happens when people from very different worlds come together? How does one decision affect the lives of everyone involved? What bursts forth from this decision? Through different point of views, the stories in The Small Backs of Children begin to unravel. Continue reading

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THE PARIS RE-INTERVIEW: Ismet Prcic

Ismet Prcic, The Art of Fiction No. 1

Re-Interviewed by Brian Hurley

Shards by Ismet Prcic is the story of a Bosnian teenager who flees his war-torn country by falling in with a theater troupe. We’ve been raving about this novel since July 2009, and it seems to be catching on. Shards was triumphantly reviewed in The New York Times, where it was named a Notable Book of 2011, and today it was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

In the first installment of a new feature here at Fiction Advocate, we asked Ismet Prcic a number of questions selected (stolen) from past interviews in The Paris Review. These questions were originally answered by Woody Allen, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Ray Bradbury, Czeslaw Milosz, Salman Rushdie, and Gunter Grass.

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INTERVIEWER

Were you funny as a kid?

PRCIC

I was a funny-looking kid with a gargantuan head and a big ass. Most of my childhood was spent in a constant state of fear. Humor and clowning around were a way to survive elementary school. At that age I already suspected that the world was rigged. The first day of high school, knowing that nobody would know who I am, I created a funny, uncouth persona who wasn’t afraid to appear foolish, who didn’t care what people thought about him. It was amazing how my life changed after that, how much more fun I had from then on. It wasn’t until college in the U.S. that I learned about something called the performative nature of identity. Steve Martin has a joke about that. Someone asks him how he can be so fuckin’ funny and he answers that every morning he puts a bologna sandwich under each of his arms and he just feels funny.

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INTERVIEWER

Who are the writers who made you first want to write?

PRCIC

The first book that put the seed in my head of one day maybe being a writer was Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. My mother’s copy of it was interesting to my fifteen-year-old self because the final part of the novel, “FOR MADMAN ONLY,” was printed in bright red. Mother said the book was probably too mature for me, and I should wait to read it. Of course I didn’t listen, and the book messed me up. I still remember viscerally how excited I felt when I realized what freedom a writer had to affect the reader by sheer manipulation of symbols on the page. Later, in Croatia, waiting for my immigration papers to arrive, I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and was smitten. That’s the one that actually made me pick up a notebook and start writing a book. I still have it somewhere. It’s called The Man from the Light Bulb. It’s terrible, but you have to knock off some of those early books before you find the one that works.

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INTERVIEWER

Was your family supportive of your writing?

PRCIC

Nobody knew. I finished The Man from the Light Bulb in America while I was staying with my aunt and uncle. It was a little tense living with them for a while. I would walk to a local book store, find a quiet nook, and write until closing time. Once I took a writing class that my uncle paid for. I showed him my first assignment, a letter to an ancestor, and after reading the first paragraph while shaking his head, he told me I should start with action right away, the way Michael Crichton does. It was a foregone conclusion that we should one day find ourselves estranged.

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INTERVIEWER

Where did you do your acting?

PRCIC

In a dusty storage room of a youth center in Tuzla, at the Tuzla National Theater, in the performance space of the Army Headquarters, in an empty pond in the city park, on the streets of Edinburgh (I once almost got my head kicked in by a soccer hooligan in front of a pub in Grass Market district for refusing to get out of character), at the Riverside Studios in London, at Moorpark College, UCSD, and that’s about it, not including acting in real life, which is pretty much constant.

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INTERVIEWER

How autobiographical is your writing? And in what way?

PRCIC

“Life story” is an oxymoron. The only thing life and story have in common is that they have a beginning, middle and an end. That’s where the resemblance ends. I have a problem with autobiographies being called non-fiction. I can’t stand that we as readers are willing to constantly trick ourselves into believing that something as chaotic as a life, perceived through a set of fallible senses and filtered through a biased, fallible brain, translated into imperfect language, shoved into a box of orderly form called autobiography and edited for boredom is considered “true.” Shards is autobiographical in the sense that Ismet Prcic, the narrator, has been to some places I have, and done some things that I have. But Shards is in no way my life story, in no way “true.”

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INTERVIEWER

Can you give us an example of fiddling with the truth in order to arrive at a better fiction?

PRCIC

In order for me to juxtapose what really happened to me in Scotland and how that changed in the book, you would have to trust me that I know or recall what really occurred. Why would you believe me? Why would you believe any human to be capable of doing that? Story is the only truth we can have. We have to be satisfied with that.

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INTERVIEWER

What distortion of yourself do you find most troubling?

PRCIC

The weird thing is that I don’t feel troubled by these distortions of my identity. Other people seem more troubled. I got a pretty nasty letter from my paternal aunt who cursed me and my future children because I “blackened” my father’s name. She didn’t even read the book herself.

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INTERVIEWER

Could you possibly write an apolitical book?

PRCIC

All art is political by default. Even when you consciously try not to be political the absence of politics is making a political statement of sorts.

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INTERVIEWER

So how do you envision man’s future?

PRCIC

Which man? You gotta be more specific.

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INTERVIEWER

You once wrote a poem dedicated to Einstein.

PRCIC

No I didn’t. Who told you that? Eric? He’s lyin’!

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– Fiction Advocate

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INTERVIEW with Michael Moats

Michael Moats runs a web site, Trade Paperbacks, that offers book reviews along with a chance to “trade paperbacks” with the reviewer in a one-to-one book swap. A political speechwriter by day, Moats is writing a book about J.D. Salinger. He recently reviewed the latest Salinger biography for Agni Online.

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Based on your review, it sounds like nobody has written a satisfying account of Salinger’s life and work yet. What’s missing from the biographies that have been published so far? Is it even possible to write a definitive account of Salinger?

Most writers seem to have screwed up in dealing with Salinger’s hostility to their project. Ian Hamilton can hardly be blamed, since Salinger sued him and forced him to rewrite his book twice. But Paul Alexander seems to have gotten very spiteful about it and resorted to Fox News-style ambiguation to make us think the guy was a pedophile or something. The latest one by Slawenski goes the opposite direction and tries to write the book Salinger might have approved of, which really isn’t possible. People can’t seem to let him off the hook for not proving himself either a total prince or a total son of a bitch.

There may someday be a definitive account, but it seems unlikely. A Salinger bio is an exercise in decoding a handful of books and stories along with what little we know about his life, so it becomes very much about the writer’s intuition and not the subject’s history. No one is going to be able to leave out a little bit of their Zembla when writing about him. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing, if they do it right.

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You say that Salinger’s fans imagine him to be a terrific guy, when in fact he was an “unsettlingly odd recluse.” Franzen said something similar about David Foster Wallace recently—that Wallace’s fans tend to overlook the deeply unsettling aspects of his life and writing. Is this a thing? Are readers too optimistic in their assumptions about the authors of their favorite books?

It’s totally a thing, but I take it as a good sign about humanity that most people are able to assume the writer is likable and nice, rather than a prick.

I’ll go you one further on this point: one of the chapters I’m working on has a part in it about how David Foster Wallace is our Seymour Glass—brilliant, populist, sagely, suicidal. How about that for conflating the real author with who you imagine him to be?

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How does the book-swapping feature at Trade Paperbacks work? Are people taking you up on it? Do you really mail them your own books out of the goodness of your heart?

You write me and I send you a book—no trade is actually required; I just thought it was a clever name. Some people are taking me up on it, but only a few so far—which is fine since I am just mailing them on myself.

The idea for TBP wasn’t really to do the trading; it was more of a New Years Resolution combined with a move into a new apartment combined with a pun. I found myself churning through books and not even really being able to say whether they were good or what they were about, so I made a resolution to write about the books so that I would actually pay attention. Then we moved and I had less shelf space, so there were books all the hell over everywhere. Then the name Trade Paperbacks occurred to me and I couldn’t back down after that, even though it is excruciating to part with books.

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What do you like about sharing your books this way, as opposed to joining an online forum like Shelfari?

Shelfari or Goodreads just feel impersonal. I like this being an “among friends” kind of enterprise, something that I know has some traction in my own small group, rather than being tossed out into the vast constellation of a huge Amazon.com-based community. I want people to actually read the writing, which the trading is really just an excuse for.

In other words, the book trading sites are not places where I can appropriately make it about me and my showing off. Whether nerding-out over books on a blog is really an appropriate way of “showing off” is another question entirely. One the Fiction Advocate has some insight on, I suspect.

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What are you working on next (that is awesome)?

Getting married (which is awesome). And planning a honeymoon (which, same). Other than that, I’ve been researching—i.e. reading, with post-it notes—to write a screenplay about the aides de camp to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. These guys were like the original Bad News Bears. Henry Knox was a bookseller before he becameWashington’s Artillery Chief. Alexander Hamilton was an impoverished, illegitimate son who grew up in the Caribbean until he came to the states, or the colonies back then, and ended up asWashington’s closest and most brilliant aide. Then there was Baron von Steuben (seriously) who was not actually a Baron, but did swear a lot and managed to regiment and drill the Continental Army. I want a movie about them. I think I want the soundtrack to be modern music—I have a particular vision of the opening part of Animal Collective’s “Summertime Clothes” and a chaotic battlefield—and I really want that weird guy who talks to God in Braveheart to play von Steuben.

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INTERVIEW with Matthew Gallaway

I interviewed Matthew Gallaway about his debut novel, The Metropolis Case, for Hipster Book Club.

The Metropolis Case is crazy good — gorgeously written, unabashedly emotional, and grand in scale.

Check out the interview here.

The New York Times is raving about the book, too.

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